05/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bloated Welfare or Supportive Housing: Opposite Ends of the Homeless World

Recently, the Arizona Republic newspaper reported that the state's Legislators planned to walk away from half a billion dollars in annual federal aid to the working poor, making Arizona the first state in the nation to lose its federal welfare program and assistance it currently provides to tens of thousands of people.

The article quotes Republican Senator Russell Pearce. "What we've turned into is folks continuing to think that everyone has the right to live off the backs of those who work for a living."

On his website, Senator Pearce writes:

"Today Arizona/America is a bloated welfare state with so called entitlement programs where we have ignored the principles of personal responsibility and value of working for what we get."

The draft budget negotiated behind closed doors by the Republican majority was reported to include a cut to funding for the Department of Economic Security (DES) by 13.5 percent, thereby triggering the forfeiture of federal funds tied to the purpose of, among other things, aiding low income working families with rent, utilities, job training and other services. DES also provides pass-through funds for homeless shelters and aid to victims of domestic violence.

It appears now the Arizona Republican majority will most likely swallow hard and vote to retain its current level of DES funding to qualify for these desperately needed extra federal funds.

Nevertheless, the pervasive thought in Arizona's Capitol is that the working poor are taking money directly from the pockets of everyone else, that mentally ill people choose homelessness and hunger and that children of parents who've lost their jobs, homes and dignity deserve to live in cars.

It's axiomatic that in a time of economic distress, those who don't vote are handed the short end of the stick. The oddity of this, however, is that it's been proven time and again that supportive housing is not only the kinder, gentler way for our fragile and vulnerable, it's also cheaper. Way cheaper!

There aren't enough green shelter cots for all our new homeless men, women and children. As meltdowns, bailouts, mergers and various ministrations are pondered in response to our current economic situation, it's clear that the little guy is once again taking it on the chin. The mortgage mess, which supposedly was the start of our economic difficulties, now has every displaced, foreclosed-on, once-upon-a-time homeowner scrambling for somewhere to live.

For far too many, that somewhere to live is nowhere.

For those who live economically within that proverbial "one paycheck away" from homelessness, the possibilities are terrifying. For the mentally ill who can't work, the opportunities for normalcy are even less, if not impossible.

The face of homelessness cannot be painted, although some try. In simple terms, home is a place where the physical things that support productive lives are accumulated. Home is where clothes are washed, meals are cooked, people relax at the end of the day. Most never think how impossible it is to get ahead without a simple place to keep things, or how for some, resourcefulness calls for shopping carts or the weight of duffel bags across their backs. Simple grocery store plastic bags become the cupboards of the poor.

For many homeless, they are on display, before strangers, on the street, every hour of the day. For them, there's no place from which to be productive and giving, to be restored, to be welcomed, to be themselves, to give physical expression to their personalities. The homeless are, quite simply, deprived of their humanity.

The newly released film, The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. is a perfect study in how the concept of supportive housing can significantly reduce chronic homelessness.

For the real-life outcome of schizophrenic and homeless cello prodigy, Nathanial Ayers, the Housing First concept was crucial. Ayers was embraced by people who otherwise might have been repulsed by his street stink, his shopping cart bulging with swollen black plastic bags, his tinfoil jacket and his pervasive and frightening mental illness. Pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis and practiced by Pathways to Housing, as well as other organizations who've adopted this unique concept, Ayers and others like him are carefully assisted toward a life of recovery and credibility.

Clearly, restoring people to economic security requires more than grudging public expenditure for warehouses filled with palpable fear and community showers. It requires attention and engagement, as well as, a willingness to focus on those living in extreme poverty not as statistics, but as hurting individuals. It takes knowing that anyone can become homeless. Primarily, it takes leaders to create sound economic policy ... and voters who choose those leaders willing to create policies different from the lift-yourselves-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality espoused by the Senator Pearces of this country.