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Frosh book generates discussion on homeless

By Prabhat Mehta

Four speakers offered different views on the problem of homelessness as part of yesterday's freshman book night. Members of the Class of 1993 received copies of Jonathan Kozol's Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America over the summer for yesterday's activities, which included the presentation by the four speakers in Kresge Auditorium and individual house discussions with faculty members afterwards.

The four speakers concurred on the need for more affordable housing. "One thing we don't have, that homeless people need the most, is affordable housing," said Philip Mangano, who works with various agencies for the homeless.

Priority should be given to increasing the number of low-income housing units rather than improving homeless shelters and other support services because the root of the problem is the housing shortage, Mangano asserted.

Mangano discussed the research of MIT's Philip Clay, who has found that while in the last ten years the number of poor people -- those most dependent low-income housing -- has increased, the number of available low-income units has been decreasing. This situation will result in an increase in the number of homeless in America from 3 million to 19 million in 14 years, Mangano said.

Langley Keyes, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning who is involved with housing policy for the state of Massachusetts, described the housing market as "the essence of the problem." But he also criticized the view that the homeless problem is "unidimensional" and that simply increasing the number of housing units will also do away with related problems such as mental illness and substance abuse.

In order to make more progress, Keyes said, homelessness must become more than "just an issue you feel badly about." He asked the audience to apply "analytical" thinking to this public policy question. "What can you [the audience], as very special people, bring to bear with this very complicated issue?" he asked.

Vin McCarthy, a lawyer who works with the Pine Street Shelter, also urged students to become more involved. "Do whatever you can do while you're at MIT," he said. "The world is looking at the major capitalistic countries -- particularly the United States -- to see how it is handling the homeless problem," he claimed.

Ann Roberts, a coordinator at the Cambridge Furniture Bank, described her experiences of being homeless with her family just one year ago after a series of financial setbacks. She and Mangano emphasized the need to understand the plight of the homeless. Roberts said that many, like herself, have become homeless despite having had wealthy backgrounds.

People must "call the homeless by their proper name -- neighbor," Mangano said.

Controversial issue at MIT

The selection of Rachel and Her Children for book night has received criticism as being hypocritical in light of the controversies surrounding MIT's development of University Park, but as Book Committee members Judy Yanowitz and Danielle Ford put it, MIT's problems with homelessness made the selection all the better. Their intention, they said, was to provoke thought and discussion, and their choice was based on a set of criteria ranging from quality of the book to social importance.

The events of the last two years concerning University Park had a significant impact on their decision, Yanowitz said. She specifically referred to the "Tent City" encampment, in which a group of homeless people occupied part of the MIT-owned development site between October and November of 1987. The homeless group demanded they be allowed to live on the land and in three adjacent houses.

The five people assigned to select the book -- Yanowitz, Ford, and three students from the executive committee of the Residence/Orientation committee -- wanted to cover an issue focusing on "the outside world, because students tend to be sheltered at MIT," Yanowitz said.

Another reason why they picked Kozol's book was the variety of other topics, including poverty, education, drug addiction, and AIDS, which are brought up by the issue of homelessness, Yanowitz added.