SYNDICATED COLUMN: What’s Left 6 – End Homelessness Now

Children's Hope: Cultivating Successful Homeless Children – Journal of Global Engagement and Transformation

           Homelessness is the single-most powerful indictment of capitalism, the embodiment of human disposability, the ultimate expression of callous cruelty. In this nation where one out of sixteen rental homes is vacant at any given time, one in six hundred Americans (550,000) sleeps outside. An additional 3.7 million people, the so-called “hidden homeless”—one out of ninety of our sons, our daughters, our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers—are doubled up in other people’s homes because they can’t afford their own place.

            “You look out the window of the White House and see the ragged and pathetic figures huddled over the steam grates of the Ellipse,” President George H.W. Bush told an audience of insurance agents in 1989, calling homelessness “a national shame.” “It’s an affront to the American dream.”

            He was right, of course. He promised to do better. Yet, because not even a president can change an economic system, nothing has improved. Only the Left can fix it.

            Of the many ways America fails its citizens, its failure/refusal to ensure that everyone has somewhere warm and safe to sleep at night is the starkest reflection of what passes for a social compact: Unless you are lucky enough not to be born into poverty, and lucky enough to avoid succumbing to addiction or some other dysfunction, and lucky enough not to suffer a debilitating physical or mental illness, and lucky enough to have the charm and the education and the experience that an employer happens to need, and are lucky enough that the economy is not contracting at that time, and you are lucky enough to find a needy employer at the exact moment he happens to need someone exactly like you, sooner rather than later you may find yourself sleeping on the street or a subway platform or on a park bench or a steam grate across the street from the White House.

            Such a society cannot credibly claim to believe that every life is precious. It cannot criticize the way other societies handle their affairs. It has zero moral standing whatsoever.

            Chronic homelessness creates problems that impact housed people as well. Responding to calls about public drinking and trespassing diverts the police from dealing with serious crimes. Areas with a high homeless population suffer significantly reduced property values, which lowers assessments and hurts municipal budgets. Because homelessness is associated with chronic health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse disorders, homeless peoples’ frequent visits to emergency rooms—where they account for a third of all patients—cost hospitals an average of $18,500 per year per person, unreimbursed since they are uninsured. Those expenses are passed on to the rest of us. Mentally-ill people are 35 times more likely to commit a crime if they are homeless, compared to the mentally-ill domiciled; they are also much more likely to become victims.

            Homelessness is expensive. National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that one chronically homeless American costs the taxpayer an average of $35,000 per year. That comes to about $20 billion for the Americans now living outside.

            Catching a glimpse of a misérable attempting to shelter outdoors also has an insidious downward effect on wages and living standards for we, the housed. It reminds you: this could happen to you. Better, then, not to risk asking for a raise.

            Cynical Marxists have suggested that this may be a feature, rather than a bug, of the current system. Fear of falling is a powerful motivating force.

            The answer to the present state of homelessness is “re-housing.” We give homes—not shelters—to the people who need them. If they don’t have money for rent, give them stipends. Most cities keep doing what doesn’t work: dangerous shelters that are only open overnight, no path to housing, people are denied shelter for drinking, using drugs or acting out.

            This is exactly wrong.

            Real homes, not shelters, help people get off drugs and alcohol because people abuse substances to numb the misery of their situation. As it happens we have plenty of real homes sitting empty: 15 million homes are vacant. 550,000 of them, beginning with abandoned units and those that have remained without a tenant for a long time, should be seized under eminent domain.

            Rapid rehousing can and should be mandatory; no one should be allowed the “freedom” to succumb to the elements. Rehousing should be done free of traditional preconditions like employment, income, absence of criminal record or sobriety. Each person’s individual needs, whether they be addressed by physical rehabilitation, job or language training, psychological therapy or other services, should be carried out by a team of social workers and other experts. Housing first, The New York Times reported in 2022, rests on a reality-based approach: “When you’re drowning, it doesn’t help if your rescuer insists you learn to swim before returning you to shore. You can address your issues once you’re on land. Or not. Either way, you join the wider population of people battling demons behind closed doors.”

Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, moved 25,000 people directly into apartments and houses between 2011 and 2022, reducing its homeless population by 63%. Denver, another housing-first city, saw arrests of homeless people drop 95% and dependence on government cash-benefit programs fall by 80% after housing-first took hold.

            According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “supportive housing” costs an average of $12,800 per person per year. That comes to $7 billion for the outdoor homeless population, or $55 billion if you also include the “hidden homeless.”

            The higher figure is 1.2% of the $4.5 trillion a year the U.S. is currently wasting on wars and other garbage. And after you subtract the $20 billion a year we’re currently spending on policing and hospitalization, it’s 0.8%.

Next: How to guarantee everyone the right to free, high-quality healthcare.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

1 Comment. Leave new

  • I agree with this idea. I suspect that a lot of people who believe strongly in motivating work by fear would not. As you mention it, Ted, I was surprised at how angry some business owners were when they could not find enough employees especially in the food, grocery and small medical business fields (private practice Dr offices in fields like optometry, dental or orthodontics) where salaries are very low and work is long. The shock was that employees didn’t want to work and weren’t interested in these fields. I think the angery was motivated by the fear that the owner or manager may eventually lose his or her source of income. So you may have something there that people don’t want to work for barely above water jobs that treat them poorly but they can be motivated by fear of homelessness.

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