The City of Memphis and its surrounding areas are faced with a real fiscal and social dilemma that promises to get worse before it gets better. Simply, that dilemma is this: how will local government address and serve the growing community of homeless citizens?
To properly address the issue, it is imperative that we first define "homeless." The traditional definition and the images that arise in the minds of most people when referring to the homeless is that of the man or woman living on the street, pan-handling for money, and digging through dumpsters for food. This image no longer fits the contemporary reality of homelessness.
Today's homeless often go to work but are unable to keep a roof over their heads. Many are victims of foreclosure and oftentimes are unable to keep the utilities on in their homes. Indeed the new homeless Memphian is one that awaits eviction at any moment and has no idea where the evening meal for the family will come from. Although this person I just described is not out in the streets, effectively, this is a "homeless" citizen.
The United States Census Bureau indicates that in 2010 there were approximately 684,000 people living inside the boundaries of Memphis. Statistics reflect that over 10 percent of the citizenry is unemployed. When we couple the reality of the Memphis employment market with these statistics, the stark reality of 68,000 working age Memphians being unemployed and going deeper and deeper into the abyss of debt, facing higher utility bills, and having to go upon eviction is threatening our local economy more than ever.
As more and more families find themselves facing homelessness, the City of Memphis Housing and Community Development agency is sitting on $130 million in capital improvement funding that remains unused. During the 2013 budget hearings, Director Robert Lipscomb went unchallenged on the question of where to best use capital improvement funds.
Several urban development projects were discussed, such as monies to improve Whitehaven and a parking garage for the Cooper Young District. However, there was absolutely no discussion on using a portion of those funds to eradicate or even reduce homelessness by any definition.
Citizens are entitled to basic services that are provided through tax dollars, whether they are homeless or not. The man living on the park bench and the family with no utilities are entitled to the same basic governmental services as the family living comfortably in upper-middle-class Memphis. The standard of living should have no bearing on the provision of services.
Therefore the duty falls upon local government and its leadership to identify the homeless, including those persons who are without the basic necessities of life, in order to provide them with police protection, fire protection, library services, basic health care, and other services that many of us enjoy. The public schools must identify those children that are from homeless families, so that Title I monies can be properly budgeted and they too can receive the appropriate services from tax dollars.
Many question whether these homeless persons of whom I speak are contributing to this society so as to justify their participation in such programs. Approximately 30 percent of such programs are funded through sales taxes. Homeless people buy food and goods, and when they do they pay the same 9.75 percent sales tax that you and I pay. The question of tax participation has no room in the discussion.
It is my position that the homeless community is growing at a rapid pace, and at present local government officials are not scraping the surface of this issue. The Memphis City Council has the power and legal authority to commandeer the CIP funds closely held by Director Lipscomb and to use a portion of those funds to address the plight of the homeless. As a city we are only as strong and as progressive as the least of us.
(Javier Bailey is a former Memphis Attorney, and currently the CEO and Senior Business Consultant at Javier Bailey Capital Group, Inc. He can be found on Facebook and at javierbailey.com.)