Seeing the Homeless

It’s hard to believe, but there are more homeless people in New York today than there were in the 1980′s-a time that many New Yorkers associate with armies of poor people living in cardboard boxes or sprawled on the sidewalk. In the 1990′s, the city was as prosperous as it has ever been, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s quality-of-life campaign seemed to banish aggressive panhandlers and homeless drug abusers from the streets. But now it’s clear that while the homeless population disappeared, it did not go away.

Today in New York, more than 13,000 children are homeless. A recent story in The New York Times Magazine noted that about 32,000 people used the city’s homeless shelters in February, and that number would have been higher still if February hadn’t been so mild. That’s a 23 percent increase from 2001, and it’s well above the 28,737 people who used the shelters in 1987.

The difference is not just the numbers, but the kind of people who are forced to rely on the government for emergency housing. Fewer single people are homeless today; families account for 75 percent of 2002′s homeless population.

That’s a terrible statistic, all the more shocking because so many of us have given little thought to the homeless ever since Mr. Giuliani made life on the streets even less comfortable than it had been. Mr. Giuliani cracked down on the proverbial squeegee men and those who made begging a contact sport, while the economy over which he presided no doubt helped many homeless people find jobs and stability. But now we’re reminded that the lives of thousands of New York children remain a hellish, Dickensian journey through the city’s shelter system: post-midnight shuttles to shelters designed for discomfort, and rude awakenings before dawn.

All of this should serve to remind us of two unpleasant but undeniable truths. Homeless people are still with us, even if they no longer seem so ubiquitous. And most of them are not adult male panhandlers, but children born into struggling families.

Making their lives easier is no small task, but first we have to acknowledge that they exist, and they are suffering.

Lori Berenson: A New Yorker in Prison

Lori Berenson could be the daughter of any well-educated, well-meaning New York City parents. Raised by two college professors, she lived in Manhattan, took violin lessons at age 8, and went on to attend the La Guardia High School of Music and Performing Arts and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she became interested in political science, particularly as it related to Latin America. She took time off from college to live in El Salvador and wrote long, colorful letters home describing the people and the culture. In short, she was like many young, idealistic women and men in New York, who have the benefit of supportive parents and an education that allows them to explore their intellectual passions. But as the world knows, Ms. Berenson’s passions led her to become entangled in some way with rebels in Peru, which led to her arrest in 1995 and her current sentence of 20 years in a Peruvian prison cell. Even if she was in fact guilty of helping the rebels try to take over that country’s Congress, her sentence is far too harsh. She is surely no threat to Peru’s future. The U.S. government needs to do more to press for her release.

During his recent trip to Peru, President George Bush didn’t bother to ask for clemency for Ms. Berenson, and the Peruvian government has declared the matter closed. But were Ms. Berenson anyone else-say, a conservative 32-year-old American instead of a liberal 32-year-old American-is there any doubt that Mr. Bush would have raised hell to win her release? Why is the President suddenly so shy about waving the American flag?

At the most, Lori Berenson is guilty of terrible misjudgment, of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. She’s already suffered for over six years in prison, much of that time in bitterly cold, unheated concrete cells, with inadequate medical treatment and isolation from other prisoners, not to mention her own family.

An international commission is reviewing Ms. Berenson’s case, but without strong American backup, it’s doubtful the Peruvian government will take action. In the meantime, in the absence of any leadership or compassion from President Bush, New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton and Governor George Pataki must apply public pressure to the White House, and do all they can to make sure that a daughter of New York comes home.

TV Is Toxic for Teens

Is TV bad for you? Reports about television’s negative effects on young minds are often viewed with skepticism, since the authors of such reports have tended to be affiliated with this or that right-wing organization with a moralistic agenda. But that’s not the case with a remarkable new study, just published in the journal Science, which has found that teenagers and young adults who watch more than one hour of television a day are more likely to commit violent crimes. What is particularly striking is that it didn’t matter if the content of the programs was violent-watching any TV for seven hours a week or more led to a greater likelihood that a young adult would indulge in criminal and aggressive behavior.

This is no fly-by-night study: The researchers, led by Dr. Jeffrey Johnson of Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, have been watching the children and adolescents for 17 years. They came upon the TV data almost by accident-the focus of their research was how parental neglect, low income and family stress affect one’s long-term mental health.

While there exists a fairly reliable body of data suggesting that young children suffer negative affects from violent TV shows, this is the first study showing that the character of teens and young adults is still malleable enough to be corrupted by TV viewing. It’s no secret that American adolescents spend more time in front of a TV than in conversation with a parent or even in school, especially in this era of two working parents. And when the parents do get home, the whole family often gathers around the TV, with the parents rationalizing this lazy behavior by saying it’s something they’re doing “as a family.” But the new research suggests that television is as harmful as alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs, and that the country’s parents and programmers are unwittingly creating a new criminal class of violent young adults.

Just as the federal government has a responsibility to regulate or outlaw cigarettes, booze and narcotics, it must find a way to limit the violent content of television programming. Meanwhile, parents need to wake up and take responsibility for keeping their kids and teens mentally healthy by keeping them away from television.