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It’s no secret that homelessness is a problem in the United States. Turn on FOX News, and odds are you’ll see videos of homeless encampments in major American cities. While Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham probably don’t have a lot of productive solutions to the problem, it is absolutely true that homelessness is a huge issue, with 550,000 people living on the streets, in cars and in parks every night.
So, why is homelessness a problem? Some like to blame homelessness on personal failures, labeling the homeless as lazy drug addicts who only have themselves to blame for their condition. The reality is this: homelessness is a policy failure. Many of us talk about homelessness as a nuisance to our daily commute, instead of a deep moral failure. Sometimes, personal circumstances like domestic abuse, addiction, illness and disability lead to homelessness, and the fact that abuse victims, drug addicts, the sick and the disabled are left to live on the streets is inhumane.
Sometimes, it’s for reasons other than personal circumstances. There’s a big problem with predatory landlords looking for reasons to evict tenants, refusing assistance funds that would help tenants afford the rent, because evictions are more profitable. The cost of living is increasing, while wages are stagnating. In Atlanta, for example, a month’s rent in a one-bedroom apartment is $1,000, while the minimum wage is $7.25. For someone who works 40 hours per week, that’s $1,242 in a 30-day month, meaning after rent, you’d have less than $250 left over. And it’s not just Georgia; in every state in the country, the minimum wage is not enough to cover the cost of living for a family, even a family with two incomes. There’s only one state, Arizona, where the minimum wage can cover the cost of living for just one adult. The fact is, the poorest among us often work the hardest.
Even though housing affordability is an issue, many Americans don’t want affordable housing anywhere near them, due to concerns that it might drive down their property values. This is a racist, classist and materialist concern rooted in the valuing of things and capital over the rights of human beings to be housed. Many will point to shelters as a solution too, but it’s not an adequate solution. Shelters often tightly restrict the activities of the residents, or force them to give up pets, or important personal belongings. They’re often inaccessible for elderly or disabled people, or are not friendly for queer people, who are disproportionately homeless. Or they’re overcrowded, which is a public health issue during a global pandemic.
Many privileged Americans assume that homeless people dislike shelters because they enjoy being homeless, instead of honestly investigating why the homeless don’t like them. Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell even stated during the mayoral election that homeless people who refuse the shelter system should face criminal consequences, and Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison suggested during her City Council race that homeless people be forced into abandoned warehouses.
Nobody wants to be homeless. It’s a hard life. On top of being exposed to the elements and not having a place to call home, homeless people deal with physical and psychological abuse from others. People often walk past the homeless and ignore them, too ashamed to acknowledge them. That is often considered the worst part of being homeless by those suffering. In addition to this, they face sadistic abuse from citizens, and even from authorities; there was a publicized instance of a San Antonio police officer feeding a homeless man a dog shit sandwich as a “joke.”
Governments often make it worse too, as many cities have criminalized the state of being homeless. In Austin, Proposition B, passed on May 1, 2021, criminalized sitting, sleeping or camping in a public place. Los Angeles, in October 2021, swept 54 encampments (sweeping is the practice of removing an encampment from an area, which displaces the homeless temporarily but does not solve anything and puts them at greater risk of COVID-19), with only two City Council members voting no. I will give them credit here: Nithya Raman and Mike Bonin. Boston has been one of the worst cities on this. In 2019, the Boston Police Department went viral for taking the wheelchairs of disabled homeless people and crushing them in a garbage truck, and then arresting the people. And last November, Boston Mayor Kim Janey tried to sweep the encampments in the city. Thankfully, Janey lost her seat to now-mayor Michelle Wu.
City officials have turned to criminalization and “solutions” like bussing homeless people off to faraway places because they don’t want to build affordable housing. One begins to wonder if they care more about appeasing their donors in the real estate industry than protecting the dignity of people. They push for policies that make it harder to live in cities, block wage increases and let corporate developers drive up the cost of housing, then blame and viciously punish the people who are victims of those policies. It’s an exceedingly cruel catch-22, but the cruelty is the point.
In order to address this problem, two types of changes are needed. The first is policy changes. Housing needs to be a human right, and more affordable, habitable homes need to be built. While it is true that there are more vacant houses than homeless people, these houses are often in a state of disrepair, are unaffordable or would require shipping homeless people to faraway cities in order to be housed. Single-family-only zoning, also known as apartment bans, are a major problem, as they are not efficient for space and drive up the cost of housing. Thankfully, states like California and Washington have ended apartment bans. Predatory landlords also need to be cracked down on, and there should be laws requiring just cause to evict a tenant. There are so many solutions beyond criminalization and cruelty, but they aren’t being explored.
On top of policy changes, changes in the culture are required too. We have to stop looking at homeless people as a nuisance, and instead see them as people who need help. So many liberal and conservative Americans completely ignore the homeless, because seeing them is an uncomfortable reminder of how messed up our society is. We need to show compassion to all, because at the end of the day, unless you are a part of the ruling class, you’re far closer to being homeless than being Jeff Bezos.