Housing the houseless is our only means of salvation
Before we discuss what that means, consider this. This year has been tumultuous for you. You worry for your physical and mental health. You may have been laid-off or your business is struggling. You are possibly mourning the loss of someone who died of COVID-19, and you are isolated from your loved ones. Moreover, you are worried you will be exposed to a virus, which is killing more people a day than the total victims of the Sep. 11 attacks.
These fears you have are everyday realities of those who are houseless. If your current circumstances culminated to you living on the streets, do you think anyone would help you?
Houselessness has become a humanitarian crisis. It is estimated over half a million people in the United States, which is the population of Wyoming, are unhoused. Rising income inequality, the degradation of our social safety net, wage stagnation and the rising cost of living have created a new normal of financial uncertainty for Americans.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these inequities and now 19 million Americans are at risk of losing their homes with 14,600 at risk in Santa Clara County.
Despite millions always on the brink of being evicted or houseless, this is not a political topic either major party willingly addresses. San Jose, like other major U.S. cities, has provided little means of substantially addressing the crisis.
City officials either signal a boost to nonprofits and charities or pass the buck to corporate giants and developers who are arguably accelerating the housing crisis. Because there is no profitable benefit for politicians to end houselessness, nothing is done to address it even though it is fairly inexpensive to resolve.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it would cost the federal government about $20 billion — or less than 3% of the nation’s military budget —to provide shelter for every houseless person in the United States.
Using HUD’s $36,000 cost-per-person to the estimated 6,000 houseless in San Jose, ending homelessness here would cost approximately $216 million, or half the police budget.
Besides being the humane thing to do during a pandemic (or in any circumstance), providing housing would reduce the crime rate and the amount of resources spent tearing down encampments, providing temporary shelters, cleaning public spaces and addressing complaints about the houseless.
Despite this, housing the houseless is considered radical because that would mean the decommodification of housing. Somehow we have been convinced to prioritize a housing market that has created unaffordable rent prices, gentrification, displacement and normalizing the fact that thousands of people in San Jose sleep outside of empty buildings and half occupied condos.
These people are veterans, students trying to better themselves, the mentally ill, LGBTQ youth, people fleeing abusive environments and people who ran out of safety nets and support systems.
Instead of actually addressing the systemic inequality, our leaders redirect the narrative or offer subpar alternatives. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has spearheaded a program to give the houseless a means of subsistence; picking up trash for $4 per bag with a $20 daily earning cap.
This is arguably slave labor but historically slave labor in the United States (such as prisons, sharecroppers or mine towns) at least included shelter. This does not create social mobility. It means to underpay desperate people to clean trash caused by inescapable poverty.
The tragic Grace Baptist Church double murder should have been a wake up call for the city to reorient its methods of handling poverty-related crime to preventative programs and services. But instead of advocating for that, retiring Chief Eddie Garcia and the mayor focused on the attacker’s documentation status and used the tragedy as an opportunity to discuss the county’s sanctuary status.
Our so-called progressives are so desperate to redirect the conversation away from systemic inequality that they are taking pages from Trump’s scapegoating playbook.
But while leaders have consistently disappointed us in a time of crisis, the people in the community have risen to the occasion of helping one another. Organizations like Sacred Heart, local churches, shelters, grassroots organizations such as Community Got Us, Hero Tent and more have worked to support families during this pandemic.
And while every donation and act of kindness is valuable, structural change is not only necessary, but within our grasp.
This summer I and fellow community members held a Resource Fair. It was an outdoor fair consisting of over 30 grassroots organizations that advocated for various causes and addressed local social issues. This was created with the hopes of channeling the frustrations of police violence and systemic inequality happening both in San Jose and nationally into mobilization.
We asked Batman, a 19-year-old student who dedicates his time providing aid and advocating for the houseless in San Jose, to give a speech. He has become a local hero and has been featured in some feel-good stories both around the bay and the United States.
Instead of a heartwarming speech, the young man gave a tearful and compelling reality check of the experiences he has witnessed in the houseless community. Batman spoke about how he performed for a three year-old’s birthday party and how he knew the child and his mother would soon be on the streets during a pandemic.
He recalled a time where he delivered a sleeping bag for a friend living by the Guadalupe River, only to find out the friend had died from the cold the night before.
A takeaway from this year is we are all only as safe as our most vulnerable. Meaning once the marginalized are guaranteed their basic needs, it is easier for everyone to have those basic rights promised.
Most of us have always been closer to houselessness than we are to being wealthy and this pandemic has made this grossly apparent. Providing a safety net is the only way we save the houseless — and therefore the only way we save ourselves.
Isaiah Wilson is a local community organizer and artist based in San Jose.