"Sir, let me ask you, where do you live?"
A police officer asked the seemingly banal question of a person—Mission resident Taylor Ahlgren—who was filming a homeless encampment eviction in San Francisco in a video released in October. When told they lived two blocks away, the cop's emotions boiled over. "Okay, wanna give her [the evictee] your address and we can put her in front of your house," the clearly frustrated officer responded, dripping with sarcasm. “How about that?”
It's a talking point I've heard and seen many times in response to my own reporting on homelessness, albeit never before by an officer of the law. The simpler version is: "If you care so much, how many homeless people are you housing yourself?"
It's trolling, obviously, but also an attempt to guide the question away from structural inequities into one of personal responsibility. It's along the same lines as believing people "choose" to be homeless, which resolves in that old chestnut about whether or not you're actually helping or hurting someone when you give them your pocket change. (Please note: You're helping.)
Indeed, most homeless advocates have heard the above bullshit question more times than they can remember. But solving, or at least alleviating, homelessness isn't an impossible proposition. In fact, it's fairly simple, right there in the name itself.
While additional funding for programs that address issues like mental health and addiction is great, those help everyone across the entire spectrum of housing—the rich and housed have mental health and addiction issues too. What's needed to address the reality of homelessness is fairly simple: Housing. And no amount of bad-faith nonsense from people who resent the idea that homelessness is fixable can obscure it.
"I'm old as shit, so I’ve heard this a million fucking times," Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of West Coast-based homeless advocates, said of questions about how many people he houses personally. "It's asinine. They think it's an easy slam dunk, trying to get someone to stumble over their words so they look like they're not confident in what they’re saying."
Generally, Boden responds to this question in two ways. "I have more than once just responded 'Fuck you,'" he said, before admitting, "It's not always the most effective." But if he has the energy to get into a more detailed response, he'll go through the list of actual causes of homelessness, like poverty, zoning laws, and—oh yeah—the commodification of housing in the first place.
Over the decades, the U.S. government has occasionally tried to alleviate this reality with federal funding. A few local experiments in public housing around the country—including perhaps the first major one, Milwaukee's Garden Homes Community, built in 1921 under its socialist mayor Daniel Hoan—were given a national coherence and structure under the Housing Act of 1934, which created the Federal Housing Administration. Subsequent Housing Acts (1937, 1949, 1965) expanded on this principle by adding budgets and scope. Then, President Nixon began the conservative campaign to halt funding in 1973, an ideology sent into hyperdrive under Reagan, and effectively continued by the Clinton administration's right-ward shift. ("These crime-infested monuments to a failed policy are killing the neighborhoods around them," Vice President Al Gore infamously railed on public housing back in 1996.)
And so, we're in a present where housing extracts profit from workers—or, in places like California and New York, serves as a simple way to store wealth—and is not countered with housing stock removed from market forces. It's a formula that has produced some 500,000 homeless folks currently living in the United States.
There are a few ways to get that number down. Currently, the federal government allocates a huge portion of subsidies towards home ownership—usually upwards of $100 billion a year, a large percentage going to households earning more than $100,000—while subsidies to renters are marginal. Shifting those gears can have the effect of keeping renters in precarious living situations housed.
And with the 2020 election coming up, we're getting a chance to see how a variety of the leading presidential candidates view housing. Joe Biden's plan focuses on housing for formerly incarcerated people but not much else, while Pete Buttigieg wants cities to bid against one another for federal funds to refurbish old vacant units. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren wants to make a $500 billion investment over 10 years to "build, preserve, and rehab units that will be affordable to lower-income families," which sounds generous until you see that Bernie Sanders wants to make a $1.48 trillion investment over the same time span. (Warren and Sanders also differ in how they want to attack the local zoning laws that have come under the umbrella of NIMBYism—Warren wants to incentivize communities financially, while Sanders wants to use federal power to tell them to go suck an egg.)
But more than any single plan's specifics—constantly squishy through the cloak of negotiation and then the varying forcefulness of implementation—is the importance of changing the idea of what
"housing" should be, advocates said. That means altering how we think, and therefore talk, about it, from "what can you do to help?" (or "what have you done lately yourself?") to "how can we change this system?"
"It's a matter of reorienting our values so that a person having a home is more important than a property owner's profit,” said Kristina Meshelski, a member of DSA-LA’s Housing and Homelessness Committee. "There are more vacant units than there are unhoused people, we know that."
How many more? In the San Francisco Bay Area, an estimated 100,000 homes sit vacant while an estimated 30,000 people are homeless. In Los Angeles, that comparison is 110,000 estimated vacancies (as of 2017) versus 36,000 homeless. In New York City, it was roughly 250,000 units versus about 63,000 homeless folks in 2018. While it’s short-sighted to believe no new housing needs to be built—particularly in California, a state that seems allergic to building the appropriate quantity of housing—the numbers may never catch up unless the new housing is removed from market considerations.
So, helping people on the micro level—donating clothing, giving away pocket change, buying someone a meal, maybe letting someone camp out back for a bit—are all commendable actions to be encouraged. But the insufferable people who focus only on those actions as a solution are, quite frankly, full of shit.
As Boden put it, "Giving people who need housing a place to crash will never address the issue of contemporary homelessness in America."
Correction 12/17/2019: A previous version of this story misstated Kristina Meshelski's role on DSA-LA's Housing and Homelessness Committee. She is a member, not a co-chair.
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