Politicians on Both Sides of the Aisle, Well-Meaning or Less So, Continue to Drop the Ball on Homelessness
Democratic President Joe Biden has introduced several initiatives designed to reduce homelessness. As such, he has received accolades from housing advocates and activists alike. For example, the current 46th President of the United States has done all of the following:
- Increased the homeless assistance budget by 10%
- Proposed $10 billion worth of inclusionary zones to incentivize affordable housing construction
- Promoted and enacted renter protections to avoid homelessness caused by evictions
All of the above-listed actions are examples of steps in the right direction.
Sadly though, whenever political leaders get involved in homelessness, every step forward seems to inspire two more steps backward.
Case in point, advocates recently pleaded with President Biden to prevent a massive sweep in McPherson Square, a stone’s throw away from the White House. When the President did not act promptly in favor of the request, approximately 70 encampment residents were evicted from the property. At least 30 were arrested for the perceived “crime” of merely existing while homeless.
The sweep was an exercise in futility. The Washington Post reports that two-thirds of those encampment residents are already back living on the streets in scattered locations. If former encampment residents aren’t placed into permanent housing, then, inevitably, a new encampment will arise to replace the old one. Hence, the vicious pipeline from poverty to tent city to prison will continue.
Following the incident, President and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition Diane Yentel rightly criticized the lack of action. Twitter user Ben Cattell pointed out a justification for Yentel’s position. Cattell wrote in a thread on the subject, “What benefit is it to Diane to work against the Biden Administration? She has vocally supported much of their housing agenda. She is merely speaking truth to power and holding them accountable to their own state’s policies, which they are violating.”
What benefit is it to Diane to work against the Biden Administration? She has vocally supported much of their housing agenda. She is merely speaking truth to power and holding them accountable to their own states policies, which they are violating
— Ben Cattell Noll (@bencattellnoll) February 15, 2023
Indeed, speaking truth to power is needed here.
Under President Biden’s watch, multiple pieces of anti-homeless legislation have passed, including the first law in history to make public camping a felony. And while Housing First initiatives are on the table, pallet shelter sales are through the roof.
As a point of reference, pallet shelters are highly flammable shacks with no toilets, roughly the size of a prison cell. These structures were presented as a kind of shelter for unhoused individuals and families, even though they pose imminent threats to the health and well-being of the people inside them.
Pros: Many of the strategies presented by the Democratic party acknowledge the homeless crisis as the byproduct of a socially flawed structure. They seek to tackle the issue at its root cause, which continues to be housing affordability.
Cons: Democratic leaders are at odds with the general public and, at times, one another about executing these plans in non-punitive and permanent ways. As it stands, the top three states for homelessness in America are blue. While this party seems more invested in the issue, this doesn’t change the fact that they are failing at the point of execution.
Republicans Propose Policies Under False Conceptions
Republicans have also tried to take on the ever-burgeoning homeless crisis by presenting bills they believe address the issues Democrats have missed. They have proposed the following pieces of legislation that will:
- audit spending
- prioritize the construction of emergency shelters and supportive housing
- prioritize encampment cleanups, otherwise referred to as sweeps
- force people with mental illness into treatment facilities
Again, while well-intended, the above-listed proposals fail to address the leading causes of homelessness, which are, and continue to be:
- a lack of affordable housing
- low wages
Whether party representatives know this or not, aside from the move to prioritize supportive housing, most of these policies are built under false pretenses and misguided stereotypes of the homeless population.
For example, encampment cleanups, or sweeps, are proven to be an ineffective and expensive approach to homelessness. Any audit on homelessness spending would inevitably show that encampment sweeps cost millions of dollars per city per year, and they only make the homeless problem less visible. They never make the issue go away.
Likewise, forcing people with mental illness into treatment facilities does nothing to address homelessness. Not only is the proposition unfathomably cruel, but it also wrongly suggests that mental illness is a leading cause of homelessness, which it is not.
Mental health issues can adversely affect members of the unhoused community, but not at rates disproportionate to the general housed population. As a point of reference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than half of the US population will be diagnosed with mental health issues at some point. Yet most of the US population remains housed.
Pros: Several bills presented here emphasize the importance of building more supportive housing. The idea of closely monitoring government spending could mean that tax dollars designated for the homeless community will not wind up in the pockets of police officers but will, instead, go toward supportive housing.
Cons: Republican leaders are presenting bills more in line with the general public’s values, but this is only because the masses are misled about the true causes of homelessness. Much of this package perpetuates the stereotypes that homelessness is mostly caused by criminality and mental health. This is simply not true.
Both Parties Could Come Together on this Issue and Get Real Results by Focusing on One Thing They Are Missing – The Message
Recently, a collective of US Mayors stated that the public was generally opposed to things that would reduce homelessness, such as affordable housing construction. Several survey participants attributed the problem to negative and false narratives when asked to weigh in on the reason.
If both parties focused more on messaging the facts about homelessness and its root causes, it would be easier to start at the very root of the issue, which is housing.
Talk to Your Lawmakers About Supporting the Right to Housing for All
Studies show that most Americans recognize homelessness as an issue and want to help. This is true no matter who they vote for in the polls.
At the end of the day, we are all human beings, and humanity has recognized housing as a basic need since primitive times. We have the resources to sustain that need thanks to modern technology. All that’s left is to make this a top priority.
Tell your lawmakers that you support the right to housing for all.