Blame homelessness on alcohol. Alcohol or heroin. Or laziness, maybe. Laziness or disease or mental illness or bad schools or deteriorating family structures. Or just bad luck. There are a thousand explanations that lay fault at the feet of those without homes or their families or minority and poor cultures. In any homeless individual’s life, there is a combination of personal, biographical factors that contribute to a life without shelter. But when homelessness is viewed not simply as an individual problem but as a social fact affecting millions of Americans and rising and falling at specific points in time, all of these personal explanations prove sorely lacking.
Homelessness is perhaps the most severe form of poverty America knows today. Every year, between 2.3 and 3.5 million people—some 1.35 million of them children—are likely to experience homelessness. Homelessness is not unknown in American history—Puritan Boston had laws punishing “vagrants,” and Civil War veterans were among the first train-hopping hoboes—but between the 1930s and the 1980s homelessness was effectively minimized in this country. While poverty remained a part of American life, very few people were in such dire circumstances that they were forced to live on the streets.
In the 1980s, as theory-heavy supply-side economic policies began to replace the real support provided under the New Deal, America saw a homelessness boom. By 1982, a wave of general emergency homeless shelters opened in major U.S. cities, and by the next year new shelters were springing up all across the nation. During that decade, homelessness tripled or even quadrupled in many U.S. cities. This sort of large-scale social change cannot be explained away through the critique of individuals. A view of recent history shows that the true structural cause of largescale homelessness is the Government defunding of public housing programs.
In 1978, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had a budget of over $83 billion. Five years later, its budget was less than a quarter that amount. Between 1976 and 1982, HUD built over 755,000 new public housing units. Since 1983, HUD has built only 256,000 units. To put that in different terms, in every year since 1983, HUD has built as many homes as it would have built in a single month between 1976 and 1982.
The production of low-income rural housing has seen a similar assault: Construction between 1986 and 1996 was one half that of the previous decade. In the subsequent decade, production has dwindled to a little over a tenth of that in ‘86-’96, or a mere eighteenth of that seen in ‘76-’86.
Concurrent with these brutal decreases in Federal funding of low-income housing, affordable housing has dropped out of the market at an average of 100,000 units per year, recently—a rate far out-pacing what dwindling HUD and rural Section 515 construction can match.
The simultaneous elimination of public housing and the rise of homelessness highlight that the cause—the primary cause—of homelessness is a deficit of affordable housing in America. Any policy—Federal, state, or local—that seeks to address homelessness but does not address this lack is doomed from the start.
The US Government has, however, refused to recognize its role in the crisis, and has responded since 1983 with inadequate stopgap measures. Initially, this response consisted primarily of the new Federal Interagency Task Force on Food and Shelter for the Homeless, an agency focused primarily on instructing local governments on how to obtain surplus blankets, cots, and clothing. The Task Force achieved little but the institutionalization of the shelter system. It did not reduce the incidence of homelessness in this country, nor did it address the wholesale decimation of government funding for public housing that had caused the crisis.
In 1987, Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act—the first and only major Federal legislation solely dedicated to addressing homelessness. Again, however, instead of restoring cuts to affordable housing, the Act created a tiny funding stream that only further entrenched the shelter system. A tiny portion supported transitional housing or mobile healthcare programs. In 1987, McKinney funding amounted to $800 million (just over 1% of the funding cut from HUD housing efforts between 1979 and 1983). Since that time, McKinney funds have never been more than $1.4 billion (2.3% of the Government-created affordable housing deficit). However well-intentioned, neither the Task Force nor McKinney could solve the homelessness crisis as long as the Federal government would not restore funding to public housing.
By 1992, the idea of supportive housing became a permanent part of the Federal response to homelessness. The problem with this approach is inherent in its central idea: When supportive housing—a program initially targeted at severely disabled homeless people—is seen as the primary or only solution to homelessness, it reinforces the illusion that massive rates of national homelessness are due to individual biographical factors rather than social structural causes. This view helps obscure the original cause of mass homelessness and the necessary structural response.
In the same year, Congress initiated the HOPE VI program to revitalize or demolish troubled public housing units. The effects of HOPE VI continue to be a subject of debate—in tens of thousands of cases, HOPE VI resulted in the displacement of families and in the permanent loss of guaranteed affordable housing. Whether or not these cases outweigh what little good HOPE VI was able to achieve, what is manifestly clear is that the pittance spent on HOPE VI, even in combination with that spent on McKinney efforts, did not begin to offset the early ‘80s setback to public housing development.
Recent Housing First initiatives, championed by the present Federal administration and many municipalities, have been equally misguided. Housing First makes the commonsense claim that the cause of homelessness is the lack of a home. But lip service to reason falls short of effective action. The Housing First model has not been backed up with the kind of funding it needs to adequately address homelessness, and the Federal government has required that Housing First funds be dedicated to the needs of individuals with disabilities. This again emphasizes the individual factors that may contribute to homelessness, while ignoring the social structural issues which are its root cause. Any serious approach to Housing First would be funded through housing program money, rather than homeless program funds.
The idea that homelessness is a personal problem, that it can be solved through local and temporary responses, or, worse, that it can be resolved through punitive measures, can only be considered an illusion, a collective deception—a misrecognition of reality which is so grand, and which encompasses so many people, that no specific individual can be held accountable for intentionally creating it. This is no conscious conspiracy—it is a shared misperception so deep that it has seeped into the core assumptions through which we see and understand homelessness and poverty.
But even if we’re headed entirely in the wrong direction in addressing homelessness, a solution is by no means out of reach. Federal budget outlays have doubled in the last quarter century since the massive defunding of public housing. There is money there, and it’s certainly not as though the Government isn’t spending it on housing. In fact, every year since 1981, tax benefits for homeownership have been greater than HUD’s entire budget. However, far from aiding those most unable to pay for housing, 55% of Federal expenditures on mortgage interest deductions go to that 12% of American society with an income of over $100,000 per annum. In principle, Federal assistance for home ownership is a valid and valuable activity, but should it be taken away from the poorest portion of American in order to provide for the wealthiest?
Another budget item that has ballooned while public housing expenditure has crashed is military spending. The Navy provides a good example of Government priorities. The U.S. Navy has over 400 vessels and 2,300 aircraft, including 180 warships and submarines—altogether a naval force greater than any other in the world. The Navy’s fleet of AEGIS destroyers alone has the power to simultaneously blow up the fifty largest cities in the world. And yet, the U.S. Government plans to spend more money on one more destroyer than it spent on all 2005 capital expenditures for public housing, and twice as much on a single submarine than on all McKinney homeless assistance.
As a culture and through our Government policies, we continue to blame alcohol, blame drugs, blame mental illness, laziness, illness, and bad luck for the misfortune of the poorest people in our society. And to ignore the role that personal biographical factors play in any individual’s situation is folly. But assisting homeless people to address whatever particular personal challenges they may face is the work of social workers and healthcare professionals; fixing the social and structural conditions which give rise to massive rates of homelessness throughout the United States is the work of policy-makers and community organizations. Both of these activities must occur, but unless we make a massive recommitment to the construction and subsidization of affordable housing, no matter how many case managers or outreach workers we fund, homelessness will continue to grow.
The full Without Housing report will be available on the Western Regional Advocacy Project Website after September 15. Pass the document around to friends, family, co-workers, or place one of the posters purchased from the WRAP Website in your office, café, bookstore, restaurant, bar, place of worship, or club. To learn more about how you can help end homelessness in San Francisco, visit the Coalition on Homelessness Website.