Bob Prentice

In reading media coverage of homelessness, it has been stunning to note the lack of historical perspective and what we are up against.  It portrays homelessness as largely a local problem—what is each city doing?—or even a regional problem—how is homelessness connected to more general housing problems in the Bay Area?

        Of course it is a local and regional problem, but it is much more than that.  This is not meant to discount the importance of work going on at the local and regional level, but rather to gain perspective on what the larger stakes are so we can have a more realistic assessment of what is possible, and what is not, from these efforts.    

        It does not help to begin with the most common media profile of homelessness.  The focus is on mental illness, substance abuse and chronic homelessness, and they become the default explanation about why people are homeless.  However, they beg more questions than they provide answers. Why does having a mental illness or addiction mean someone is homeless?  Although roughly one-third of homeless people are described as being mentally ill, it’s not all that different from the more than one-quarter of the population as a whole who experience mental illness.  Addiction to alcohol or drugs is not unique to people who live on the streets, but they are more visible.  And, the term “chronically homeless” is probably more a statement about how being homeless contributes to or exacerbates mental illness, addiction or loss of hope to the point that mere survival becomes the daily task.  It is impossible not to see the pain in people who talk to voices no one else can hear (other than those on their cell phones) or are so strung out that nothing else matters, but to experience it while having no place to live is more than most could manage.

        We have to step back and ask how this seemingly intractable problem began and rather than bemoan the fact that, in spite of the best local efforts to help people off the streets, the problem continues with little evidence that we are reducing the size of the homeless population.  More importantly, we need to understand what we have to do in the longer run to make our efforts successful.

        The upsurge of homelessness in the early 1980s, on a scale not seen since the 1930s, corresponds with a shift in U.S. politics that, over the last four decades, has seen an increase in the inequality of wealth and income unprecedented since at least the 1920s.  In the United States, the most unequal among developed nations, 1% of the population now owns over a third of the wealth and roughly a quarter of total income.  How is it possible not to see homelessness as the most extreme expression of this degree of inequality?

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Hoovervilles were the precursors to today’s tent encampments, a combination of social movements and political advocacy created New Deal programs that provided public employment (Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, etc.), Social Security, unemployment  insurance, nutrition programs, the rudiments of a federal housing policy (United States Housing Act of 1937) and other measures (sadly, not including health insurance) that established government commitment to the common good and its role as a source of support for the basic necessities of life.

        Just as the New Deal established a framework for our political culture for roughly four decades, however, the neo-liberalism introduced by Reagan in the 1980s set the course for the next four decades when the private market became the solution to all problems (“government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem” he famously stated).  He certainly kept to that view when he reduced the budget of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development by over 75% (from $32 billion to less than $8 billion) during his two terms in office.  That legacy is not only alive but on steroids in the Trump era, with the ideological commitment to private sector interests as the cornerstone of policies affecting health care, education, housing, employment, public assistance and environmental regulations undermining any public commitment to basic standards of healthy and secure lives for everyone.

        When considering the question of where we go from here, we have to confront a fundamental irony.  In the absence of adequate public support, there has been a desperate turn to philanthropy.  Maybe that is what we have to work with under current circumstances, but it is also an example of how the private sector has eviscerated the legitimate role of the public.  It is not enough that venerable public institutions have become the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital or the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, but now we deal with homelessness as the extreme expression of wealth and income inequality by having billionaires donate their excess wealth to programs for homeless people.

        It is also striking to note that homelessness is a huge political issue locally, but it was barely mentioned in recent presidential elections, even though it is fundamentally a national problem.  Democrats and Republicans, liberal and conservative, seek a safe base by referring consistently to the “middle class” (whatever that means) without regard to the extreme poverty, including homelessness, that we have created.

Like many of the social movements that have been activated or invigorated in the Trump era—Black Lives Matter, women’s march, immigrant rights, environmental justice, Native rights—homelessness must be seen as part of a larger issue of social justice.  And, like those other movements, it cannot be seen as an isolated issue but rather must become part of larger forces that are fighting for social justice and a commitment to our common interests in everyone having at least the basic elements of a decent life.

        In the meantime, let’s continue doing what we can at the local and regional level, but let us not lose sight of the larger issues we confront as we claim we are doing what we can to end homelessness.  If we are serious about ending homelessness, there must be a national strategy, because that’s where it all started and continues to be the primary source of what appears to be an intractable problem at the local level.