This article isn’t about dwelling on how homelessness became an epidemic. It isn’t about what should be classified as short term vs. long term goals. This is a list of actions that when applied together should eliminate homelessness. They are not easy. They may not even be immediately possible. But they must be considered – not just once, but repeatedly, until the specter of homelessness is gone.
We Must Get Serious About Affordable Housing
The average rent in Salt Lake City is $1,235 for an apartment of just over 800 square feet. That’s more than what a person earning minimum wage makes all month. I met a lot of people in the shelter who were only homeless because they became disabled, or they were on Social Security.
My wife, an RN who was disabled through no fault of her own, receives $1,173 a month and $15 in food stamps. Some disabled people receive less than that. These are people who worked all their lives, only to find that Social Security or disability doesn’t provide anywhere near enough to live on. And housing assistance of any kind means at least a five-year waiting list. What do you do for five years?
The Minimum Wage Must Be Raised
President Franklin Roosevelt was campaigning for reelection in Massachusetts when a young girl rushed forward and tried to pass him an envelope. This prompted a policeman to throw her back into the crowd.
Roosevelt saw this, however, and he told an aide to get the note from the girl. Her note read as follows:
“I wish you could do something to help us girls … We have been working in a sewing factory, and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week … Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 a week.”
The young girl’s note had a profound impact on the President, who later told a reporter, “Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages.”
Later, Roosevelt said on his regular radio show the night before signing the labor law:
“Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day tell you that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”
At the time, children were working from 10 to 14 hours a day. Sometimes they worked for zero wages, their only compensation being a little food for their families. Sweatshops and textile factories actually preferred women and children laborers at the time because they were cheaper.
The first minimum wage was $0.25 an hour. Which was still nowhere near enough, but it was raised every year, at first. The minimum wage in 1963 would be equal to $10.62 in today’s dollars, for example.
The minimum wage right now is $7.25 an hour, the same thing it’s been for almost 14 years. A full-time job on minimum wage provides for rent on a one-bedroom apartment in exactly ZERO cities in the US.
When any person or family is paying more than 50% of their income on rent, they are at risk for homelessness. From that perspective, a person earning minimum wage can safely afford an apartment rent of around $500 at the very most. Apartments that rent for $500 don’t exist, here in Salt Lake or in any other large American City. So, what ends up happening is an untenable situation where millions of Americans end up paying up to 60–80% of their income to rent, leaving precious little for food, transportation, medicine, and especially, emergencies.
Even at $10-$11 dollars an hour, people end up paying more than 50% of their income on rent. Lower income jobs very rarely provide adequate healthcare. With so much income dedicated to rent, a single illness or injury can mean the difference between housed and homeless. I know as I’ve seen it firsthand.
The ‘War on Drugs’ Must End
Why? Because it never worked. All the war on drugs ever accomplished was to give the ‘land of the free’ the black eye of having more people in prisons than any other nation on earth. We have a larger number of prisoners, we have a greater percentage of our population imprisoned, and we have more people that have been imprisoned than any other country. North Korea, China, Russia, wherever. The war on drugs turned us into the jail and prison capital of the world.
We need a war on addiction, not a war on drugs. At one time during the drug war, we were beginning construction on a new jail or prison somewhere in America every two months. Imagine if we had built new addiction treatment centers instead! What if we had made compassion a valid approach to the problem instead of brutality? What if we had focused on perfecting the science of healing addictions instead of simply tossing people into giant concrete bunkers full of cages?
Treatment centers are sometimes derided for a low rate of success, which is ridiculous when compared to jails and prisons. What game-changers those are! Throwing someone in a cage and psychologically beating the humanity out of them very rarely, if ever, returns a better human being to society. Instead, we have built a class of people who can no longer get a job or an apartment because of a felony drug conviction.
We live in a nation so backward that we’ve legalized marijuana but not people who used marijuana! Those people are consigned to life on the streets in many cases because of ubiquitous background checks.
We Must Help Mentally Ill People
It’s incomprehensible to me the cruelty of today’s society with regard to the mentally ill. Since Ronald Reagan emptied the mental hospitals in the 80s, it has apparently become OK to just let people with mental disabilities languish in the cold on the streets.
I really don’t understand this one. Most of the mentally ill that I saw while homeless seemed to me to be likely schizophrenic, as they were more or less detached from reality. There are now good medications that treat schizophrenia. But the streets and homeless shelters aren’t well suited to the management of those kinds of medications.
There were also autistics like me, our various communication difficulties likely contributing to our station among the unhoused. Many if not most homeless people with mental disabilities, like myself, are perfectly treatable. American society must be more humane in this regard.
We Must Help Foster Children ‘Aging Out’ of Their Homes
When unfit (or imprisoned), parents lose their children to the foster care system. Those children often wind up homeless when they turn 18. I was actually surprised to learn that. All over the country, over 6,000 children a year have a birthday and instantly become homeless.
This is often an especially tragic result of the ‘War on Drugs,’ as parents with addictions are imprisoned instead of treated, a tactic that destroys both lives and families at the same time.
The child welfare system is badly underfunded and poorly managed, and it shows. By the last year of high school, only 20% of foster children are proficient in English. Just 5% are proficient with math and only 1.2% ever earn a college degree. More than half will experience homelessness or incarceration before their 26th birthday. And for far too many, that will become their permanent way of life.
We Need More Supportive Housing
Many among homeless people are not ready, for one reason or another, for their own apartment. This is where supportive housing has been extremely successful. Whether the issue is addiction, behavioral problems, or some other disability, placing these people in supportive housing can get them to a place where they can move out on their own. Supportive housing consists of many small apartments that are directly managed by onsite caregivers. Retired hotels work well for this purpose.
We Need Low-Barrier Apartments
Anybody who has rented an apartment recently knows how many invasive examinations of their life are necessary before they can move in. Credit checks, background checks, income verifications, prior eviction checks, etc. It’s as if you applied for a job at the CIA.
The problem is, many people are blemished enough even without this kind of scrutiny, and they still have to live somewhere. Giving them nowhere to go ensures that they will, in fact, go nowhere. Then the next stop is either a shelter, park or prison. Building a crueler society only ensures crueler people. We’ve got to get past this. There has got to be carefully managed low-barrier places where people can live while doing what they need to in order to improve their lives.
We’re Going to Need Corporate Help
All over my city, massive corporate apartment complexes are going up. Luxury apartments are all the rage here. And with over 50,000 people moving in every year, the market is huge.
The vast majority of these apartments are going for well over the median rent. This is contributing to the problems that are putting people on our streets. These corporations, many of them multibillion-dollar national entities, could start helping in a big way with little investment! Simply commit to providing a percentage of properties for low-income renters. Not enormous facilities with pools and gymnasiums and fancy architecture, just simple, plainly appointed homes. Let’s get moneyed interests invested in change – there’s plenty of market for everyone.
Before the pandemic comes to an end, America will face the greatest housing crisis in its history. 30 to 40 million people are facing imminent eviction. As it is right now, in almost every big city in America, there is already shock and dismay at the ever-growing number of homeless people. Now just imagine the reaction when the number of unhoused people in our streets double, triple, or even worse in the coming months as millions upon millions of leases come due and there is no money to pay the rent. I’m not saying that it might happen … I’m saying that it will. It’s inevitable.
Here in Utah, shelter capacity was reduced by 400 beds last year, which wasn’t smart.
Nobody knew a pandemic was coming, of course. But now the pandemic’s aftermath could be as bad as the Great Depression. The old downtown homeless shelter, which held 1,100 people, has been razed. In its place are the new “Resource Centers” that can only hold 700 people total. The math was and is clearly alarming. With no new assistance likely coming from Congress, the wave of evictions has already begun.
How many of the 30-40 million of those evicted will wind up homeless in Utah is unclear. But it will hit hard and it will last for quite some time.
Dealing with this will take money, there’s no way around that. We just might have to tax a few billionaires.