Out of America: Buddy, can you spare a home?

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Some time late at night on Sunday 28 November, with Thanksgiving weekend all but over, Yetta Adams pulled an old blanket around her and lay down to sleep in a bus shelter on Seventh Street, Washington. She was homeless, 43, and had three grown-up children. At 10.30 the next morning she was found dead, huddled close to her few pitiful possessions. According to police, she had died from natural causes.

Yetta Adams's death should have gone unnoticed by officialdom, press and public, except for one small inconvenience. The bus shelter where she spent her last hours was opposite the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the very government agency that was supposed to help her.

In her wretched death, far more than in life, Yetta Adams has served a public purpose. In starkly symbolic fashion, the country has been reminded of a scourge that it would far rather have forgotten all about.

Sad but true, ordinary Americans have virtually given up on homelessness. Not long ago, through the prism of partisan politics, the problem looked so straightforward. The homeless were the ultimate losers of the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. They were the ultra-poor, helpless against the riproaring 'what's in it for me' ethos of the Republican Age of Greed. Some compassion and a government-subsidised roof over their heads, it was argued, and all would be well. If only it were that simple.

Some homeless people have been brought down by economic circumstance. But the majority, perhaps three-quarters of them, suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness - often a combination of all three. For 10 years, Yetta Adams had been in and out of homeless shelters. As so many like her, she had chosen to cut loose from her family, social workers and the doctors and hospitals who had tried to help. She suffered from chronic depression and diabetes.

Since I moved here in March 1991, the homeless crisis has visibly worsened. Then the destitute were mostly to be found in the city centre. Despite strict enforcement of anti-loitering laws, they still are. But today they have moved to the suburbs as well, begging at bus terminals, Metro stations, even traffic intersections. Public sympathy has largely vanished, while a financially strapped city cannot cope. For an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 homeless (out of a population of 600,000), there are only some 3,000 permanent shelter beds. The night Yetta Adams died, the temperature dropped to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Only when it hits freezing point do the DC authorities open city buildings to take in vagrants temporarily. Before winter is out, others will probably die.

On any given night, 700,000 are sleeping rough across the country, three in every 1,000 of the population. Each year hundreds, maybe thousands, of homeless people die unnoticed in city and countryside alike, out of sight and out of mind.

Maybe, with a Democrat in the White House and domestic issues the order of the hour, something will change. An appalled Henry Cisneros, the HUD Secretary, called the death at his office doorstep 'the indictment of a system' that had failed to address the underlying causes of homelessness. Mr Cisneros is asking Congress to double federal aid to dollars 1.5bn (pounds 1m) a year. In the meantime he has instructed HUD offices around the country to open as needed this winter, and has allocated an extra dollars 25m for emergency help. Better still, he has the ear of President Bill Clinton, by nature an activist, socially engaged and open to new ideas.

But will that be sufficient? Only eternal optimists would bet that Yetta Adams's death will bring real improvement. These last few days she has been front-page news. But America's attention span is famously short.

A homeless man who knew her provided an epitaph. 'She was a good lady,' he said, 'and she didn't bother nobody.' But is America really in the mood to be bothered either?