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Why isn’t homelessness seen as a national crisis?

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Cities call on the federal government to confront the growing numbers of homeless residents

A homeless man sleeps in the doorway of a church in Washington, DC after a snowstorm.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Homelessness: It was something that President Donald Trump did not mention in his State of the Union address. After years of going down, the number of homeless Americans rose during his first year in office, putting an estimated 554,000 Americans on the street.

The past year has seen a disturbing lack of leadership from agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development on what has become a nationwide crisis and one of the key issues facing cities.

Subsidies and grants on which housing nonprofits rely continue to be threatened by federal budget cuts. And HUD Secretary Ben Carson has made no sweeping proposal to protect the growing number of Americans who can’t pay rent, including people who have steady jobs but have been recently evicted in soaring real estate markets.

Earlier this week, 14 mayors from U.S. cities partnered with business leaders and philanthropic organizations to launch a new coalition to remind Trump and his appointees that this is their problem, too.

The group, called Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment, intends to work with HUD to make sure cities don’t lose federal dollars, and come up with new and innovative ways to fund affordable housing.

“Current programs and federal funding are not meeting the demand,” reads the website. “One in four families that rent in our country are a paycheck away from homelessness, and families can no longer afford safe places to live.”

At the heart of the mayors’ plea is an inherent truth: The homelessness crisis has reached such a breaking point that cities simply cannot build enough housing to solve the problem on their own. In Los Angeles, for example, at least 50,000 new homes would need to be built just to house the homeless population estimated by its annual count. That doesn’t even include the many more tens of thousands of affordable units needed to house the city’s workforce.

The U.S. is not alone in wrestling with issues of income inequality; large, expensive cities all over the world are facing daunting housing challenges. But our peer countries are taking nationwide approaches to solve their homelessness problems, confronting the issues head on.

In London, a proposal by the Labour Party promises to buy every homeless person in the UK a home if candidate Jeremy Corbyn is elected. Like the U.S., the UK is experiencing all-time highs in numbers of homeless residents, but the numbers are much smaller; Corbyn said the government would buy 8,000 homes outright to immediately house those in need.

Closer to home, Canada is also opening the door for such a policy with its National Housing Strategy, which aims to give 530,000 families housing security through a variety of solutions, including a comprehensive repair program to rehabilitate older and substandard housing. The country says it will work with the United Nations to “progressively implement the right of every Canadian to access adequate housing.”

The United Nations global poverty task force recently visited several cities in the U.S. that are bearing the brunt of the homelessness crisis, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as rural communities in Georgia and Alabama. (The group also went to Puerto Rico, which is facing a severe housing and humanitarian crisis.)

The report was nothing less than devastating.

“The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful, and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty,” wrote Philip Alston, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Other parts of the UN report were just as damning.

Compared to other wealthy democratic nations, the U.S. has higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy, and the highest incidence of obesity. Child poverty rates are the highest in the U.S. among the six wealthiest countries on the planet. The country is also suffering from an opioid epidemic which some have blamed for the surge in homelessness.

These statistics prove that the U.S. homelessness problem is not just about homes—the country is experiencing a deep and worsening poverty crisis.

While the U.S. is far from declaring housing as a human right, at least under this administration, there are ways that the federal government could help build housing quickly and more affordably.

The Mayors & CEOs coalition wants to encourage new strategies for working with private developers to incentivize affordable projects, something that is meant to perk up the ears of the real estate magnate-in-chief. The idea is a HUD program modeled after the Department of Transportation’s TIGER grants. Like similar proposals that help cities fund giant infrastructure projects, these public-private partnerships could help supply the necessary funding for tens of thousands of homes at a time, instead of waiting for grants or other subsidies on a project-by-project case.

The federal infrastructure plan itselfprovided it actually materializes—could also help address the housing crisis by putting homes in the right places. Paired with smart proposals to add homes along rail lines and bus corridors, like California’s Transit Zoning Bill, cities could build out their transportation infrastructure and ensure that transit-dependent residents could live closest to these services. Cities can then save money on development by relaxing or eliminating local parking requirements, which add cost and space to apartments.

Many cities are grappling with the fact that too much market-rate housing is being built, and due to low supply, most residents still can’t afford it. The federal government could require cities to collect data on how its housing is being used, information that could be used to fill vacant housing units with renters through subsides or heavily taxing property owners who leave their units unoccupied. Denver is trying a pilot program where it is subsidizing rent on empty luxury units so unhoused residents can move in right away.

While the State of the Union was broadcast, residents of LA’s Skid Row, which is considered to be the largest community of homeless Americans in the country, held their own State of the Union. Many attendees blamed Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress for passing a tax bill that they say will make their situation even worse.

The UN’s Alston had made the same assessment while visiting LA’s Skid Row a few weeks before. The tax breaks that largely benefit corporations will “greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1 percent and the poorest 50 percent of Americans,” wrote Alston. “The dramatic cuts in welfare...will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes.”