Old Debate: Homelessness and Reagan

Ronald Reagan's inaugural address 1981In late 1980 and early 1981, interest rates hovered around 15%, unemployment was at 11%, and economists visualized a crises.  That is the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address .  In that address, Reagan said,

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

These 74 words became a battle cry of both conservatives and progressives. Conservatives see Reagan’s words as warning against relying on government. Progressives see the same words as proof of the folly of not relying on government.

A favorite topic for battle is homelessness. In 1967, while Governor of California, Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act which ended the practice of institutionalizing patients against their will for indefinite amounts of time. At that time, there were 22,000 patients in state mental hospitals. By 1973, there were 7,000. Community clinics with the help of newly-developed medication assumed responsibility for patient care. In 1981, as President, Reagan signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. The legislation created block grants for states, but reduced federal spending on mental illness.

To this day in 2017, more than half a century after the signing of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and 37 years after the Omnibus Budget Act, progressives are still convinced that closing the state mental hospitals is the cause of present homelessness.

However, 56 years seems ample time to reopen state mental hospitals, where the mentally challenged can be warehoused out of sight and out of mind with or without their consent, if that is what Reagan critics desire.