In an interview on Good Morning America in 1984, President Ronald Reagan addressed a topic rarely discussed by any commander in chief: homelessness. Yet despite his acknowledgment that this is a crisis that has faced our society for generations, he fell into the old game of shifting the blame.
Bad economic and housing policy had nothing to do with homelessness; in his view, it was all on the individual. In this now all-too-familiar paradigm, the person suffering is almost always at fault and the federal government really should have no role in making up for an unhoused person’s shortcomings.
Every president since has carried forward some version of this ethos of abdication, and today, in the United States, we find ourselves in a situation not that different from exactly the same challenge that Reagan was facing in the 1980s. Over 500,000 people living on the streets, a lack of truly affordable housing leaving hundreds of thousands on the brink of homelessness, and a shredded safety net that can’t catch the most vulnerable people.
But what we have isn’t anything new.
There have been “explosions” of homelessness countless times over the past two centuries in the United States. From the Revolutionary War to the Great Depression and then the Great Recession, we have seen people displaced and put outside because they simply have nowhere to go and no one left to lend them a hand. Homelessness is a cycle in America because we haven’t made the deep investments necessary to address the underlying causes, so we never really get to the root of the problem. Instead, we either eschew the discussion entirely or give into political, knee jerk reactions that force us into repeating old mistakes, as we keep trying to sweep everything under the rug to hide the mess for another day.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at a recent 2022 editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle.
In the piece, the editorial board suggests that creating thousands of new shelter beds may be the only way to resolve the local problem. In 1869, this same group offered “a large building heated through the night to house the homeless poor” as their innovative solution. Right now, public outcry, more than anything else, is leading us backwards to approaches that have already failed before. We can repackage it all we want, but there’s nothing new here. And the same tired approaches will almost certainly lead to the same bad outcomes.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t find shelter for everyone that needs it. People need a place to escape the harsh elements and have their basic needs met. But the truth is nearly every jurisdiction in the country has an unused town hall, community recreation center, or some other public building where they could put people and provide care. We could end the unsheltered epidemic tonight, if that was really the goal. And maybe we should, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem and in the long run it could even make things worse.
In New York City — a place with over 65,000 shelter beds costing the city $3 billion a year to operate — homelessness has reached its highest levels since the 1930s. This is not because the city isn’t providing enough emergency support. It’s because the people staying at these temporary places have nowhere to go. And as the largest shelter system in the history of the United States begins to overflow, even more draconian measures are being considered to deal with an exploding street homelessness population that New York supposedly solved decades ago with its “Right to Shelter” mandate.
History is clearly screaming at us that we can’t shelter or arrest our way out of the nightmare of not having permanent, affordable places for people to live. When you look around the world, you can see that countries that have embraced this fact are making real, lasting progress at ending homelessness. These efforts have taken a long time and required a lot of money, but the results are paying dividends now that every person gets to enjoy.
So in 2023, let’s figure out a way to recommit to the obvious answer and not mortgage the future on recycled, futile strategies that don’t end with a home.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.