It’s Not That Hard to Solve Homelessness

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Yves here. This post seems disconnected because it initially focuses on how “out’ groups are over-represented among the homeless and then turns to the fact that homelessness is the result of unduly high housing costs, as in failure to provide for adequate supply of affordable housing. In other words, homelessness is primarily a function of class, with traditionally disadvantaged groups winding up in lower income cohorts, and much less able to escape that position due to much less class mobility than in the past.

The big obstacles to alleviating homelessness in the US are NIMBY-ism, government spending stinginess in general and antipathy to the poor in particular. But as this article contends that the spending on homeless-related policing is so large that it would go a considerable way towards funding housing programs.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

California is home to Hollywood and Disneyland, sun and sand, and… nearly one-third of all unhoused people in the entire nation. Compare this to the fact that 12 percent of the nation resides in the Golden State and it becomes clear that there is a serious problem of housing that undercuts the Left Coast’s liberal reputation.

An extensive study of the state’s struggle with homelessness by the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) paints a detailed picture of the problem, and it’s not pretty. Homelessness is thriving at the intersections of racism, sexual violence, overpolicing, and more. The report’s authors explain, it “occurs in conjunction with structural conditions that produce and reproduce inequalities.”

Contrary to the popular perception that good weather fuels voluntary homelessness and consists largely of transplants from out of the state, the report points out that 90 percent of the unhoused had been living in California when they lost access to housing. And, three-quarters continue to remain in the same county.

The problem also manifests in systemic racism, with Black and Indigenous people overrepresented among the unhoused compared to their populations. More than a quarter of all unhoused people in California are Black, and yet only 5 percent of the state’s overall population is Black.

Homelessness also fuels sexual violence that disproportionately impacts unhoused LGBTQ people and women. More than one-third of transgender and nonbinary people experiencing homelessness reported being victims of sexual violence, while 16 percent of cisgender women did so as well.

And, nearly half of all the study’s participants (47 percent) report being harassed by police. Law enforcement routinely subjects California’s unhoused population to violent police raids, dehumanizing searches and seizures of property, forced relocation, and incarceration. The unhoused are disproportionately criminalized by a system that pours a significant amount of tax dollars into policing rather than into affordable housing. Increasingly, cities are simply making it illegal to live outdoors, as if criminalizing homelessness will magically make the math of housing affordability work out.

The UCSF report is neither the first, nor will it be the last one to explore the extent of homelessness in California. And while it makes clear how serious the problem is, the main question remains: how to solve it?

There are several policy solutions put forward including rental assistance in the form of housing vouchers, an exploration of shared housing models, mental health treatment, and even a progressive-sounding monthly income program. But these are merely metaphorical band-aids being applied to a gaping, bleeding wound. None of them address the fundamental reason of why there are more than 171,000 people without housing in California.

Interestingly, the UCSF study’s main author, Dr. Margot Kushel, honed in on the core issue in an interview with the San Francisco Chroniclewhen she said, “We have got to bring housing costs down, and we’ve got to bring incomes up… We need to solve the fundamental problem—the rent is just too high.”

This is a nationwide problem and California is merely on the front lines.

So, how to bring housing costs down? The federal government sees a shortage of homes as the problem, treating it as an issue of supply and demand: increase the supply and the price will fall. But there is no shortage of housing in the nation. There is a shortage of affordable housing and as long as moneyed interests keep buying up housing, building more won’t be a fix.

Since at least 2008, hedge funds have been buying up single-family homes and rental units in California, throwing a bottomless well of cash at a resource that individuals need for their survival and pushing house prices and rents out of reach for most ordinary people. This too is a nationwide phenomenon, one that was extensively outlined in a 2018 report produced by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Americans for Financial Reform, and Public Advocates.

That report makes it clear that Wall Street hedge funds see housing as the next frontier in profitable investing. Once these funds buy up homes and apartments to rent out, they cut the labor and material costs associated with maintenance, and routinely raise the rents.

And why wouldn’t they? Their bottom line is profits, not safe, clean, fair, affordable housing. In 2000, the average American renter spent just over 22 percent of their income on housing. Today that percentage has jumped to 30. Hedge fund landlords are likely celebrating their success at getting “consumers” to fork over a larger share of money for their “products.”

The only way to stop hedge funds from taking over the housing market is… [drumroll] to stop hedge funds from buying up homes. To that end, the ACCE report calls on local municipalities and state governments to offer tenants the first right of refusal in purchasing homes, along with appropriate supports, and then offer nonprofit institutions like community land trusts to have the second right of refusal to purchase. It also calls on the federal government to “not incentivize speculation, or act to favor Wall Street ownership of housing assets over other ownership structures.”

The other end of the problem is that incomes are too low. According to Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the federal minimum wage ought to be $21.50 an hour in order to keep up with the rise in productivity. But it’s not. It’s a horrifyingly low $7.25 an hour. And while nearly half of all states have pushed that wage floor far higher to about $15 an hour, it doesn’t come close to what’s needed. Even the few dozen cities that have forced the minimum wage past their state requirements don’t get to $21.50 an hour.

Yes, individual incomes are rising because of worker demands on employers, but they are not keeping up with inflation. And even though government officials admit that rising wages don’t fuel inflation, the Federal Reserve sees rising wages as the problem, countering them with higher interest rates.

Putting together these pieces of the puzzle, one can only conclude that our economy is designed to keep ordinary Americans living hand to mouth, running on an endless treadmill just to keep from falling into homelessness.

The rent is too damn high—to cite affordable housing activists—and wages are too damn low. That is the nutshell description of an economy that is simply not intended to center human needs.

Passing laws to prevent hedge funds and other large businesses from buying up homes and apartments and raising the minimum wage to at least $21.50 are hardly radical ideas, but they offer course corrections for an economy that is running roughshod over most of us. Rather than tinkering at the edges of the problem and putting forward complex-sounding solutions that don’t actually address the root of the issue, wouldn’t society be better served by redesigning our economy to make homelessness obsolete?

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  1. SK

    …or we modify zoning laws to allow more multi-family housing and reduce costs by reducing red tape.
    While it is admirable to aim for pushing hedge funds out of the market, it is unlikely to happen with our current political system. What may be more likely is what Vancouver did, which is to tax second homes or investment properties (not a primary residence) with a 15% tax, that can be used to fund rental vouchers for homeless.

    1. jsn

      Red tape is a Chamber of Commerce myth.

      Building quality buildings that won’t dissolve in the rain, blow away in the wind or burn down the neighborhood, and doing it in a safe way, by which I mean in a way that doesn’t kill, injure or disable workers, is expensive.

      These are all public goods the the public would benefit from paying for publicly and if done expensively enough up front would provide generations of public benefits: this is how beautiful cities have always been made, not through markets, though carefully structured markets can play a role. Cramming public goods into the market box never works.

      1. chris

        Yeah, zoning laws can’t help everywhere. There are plenty of locations in the US which need affordable housing and can’t support multi-family units because they don’t have the existing infrastructure to do it. No roads, no municipal water supply or sewer, not enough seats in the local schools…these are not the places you want to build multi-family units in.

        The red tape and zoning claims also ignore a fundamental problem we have in this country with location. We have lots of housing stock in places where people don’t want to live. We could probably house the current homeless population of California by moving them all into houses around Detroit. The fact that this would likely not make anyone happy is the problem.

        Blocking hedge funds and other large investment corps from purchasing housing would be a good first step. Helping local communities take charge of their housing stock would be good too. And then we need to address wages. I don’t know how we do all that. The conspiracy minded part of me believes there were more than a few of our leaders who were excited about COVID-19’s ability to reduce the surplus population so that no one had to think about these issues. But there’s only so much that can be done by killing off our poor and vulnerable. Sooner or later our leaders have to recognize that you can’t inflate the costs of what we need to live for 50 years and not let wages rise to afford those expenses.

      2. KLG

        My smallish hometown has at least a dozen public housing “projects” that are more than 70 years old, in “diverse” neighborhoods. The oldest are pre-WWII. They are run by the Public Housing Authority. The older they get the better they look. Obviously well built, they have been well maintained and will outlast more recent iterations. The same is true of where I currently live. True public goods and with very little so-called “stigma” attached back in the day; I do not know about that now. Two dozen more would go a long way toward solving the local housing crisis. This is not difficult.

    2. RookieEMT

      Zoning code was a major reason why I gave up in land development. I’m in the middle of a big city like Charlotte. I see a perfectly good corner lot and imagine five or so townhouses fitting there.

      Well zoning code demanded single family (maybe a duplex). I couldn’t be bothered by the planning department and going through the zoning process with city council.

      A couple months later, I watch a 1.2$ million dollar home being built on that lot. It’s now permanently unaffordable to all but the 1%, just as the city wanted.

      Reforming zoning alone won’t fix the problem. Yes, restrict corporate buyouts. Building code needs to a reviewed, anything to trim 10-15% of construction costs. Finally, cut out speculators and developers by organizing co-ops.

      Sadly, we’re not good at a multi-system approach in reform. Nevermind reforming a specific problem.

      1. chris

        Disagree re: building code. There’s no evidence that building better and smarter raises costs. There’s a lot of evidence that better details = lower chances of water intrusion and wind damage with better energy savings. But we have a lot of people doing stick built housing that build wastefully. Until recently we haven’t had much cause to worry about that. Now we have a lot of reasons to want it but fee can afford new builds based on market prices for materials, land, and profits. Lack of skilled labor is driving up costs too. Would be good for the US to try to support trade schools and quality building education.

        1. rookieEMT

          Well, that’s why I’m saying around 10-15%. Chip at it. Don’t gut building code. It’s pretty well laid out even if it has become so complex over the past few decades. Gut building code and you get next to no savings and unsafe buildings.

          Affordability is death by a thousand paper cuts. I read a blog years ago advocating for mandatory residential water sprinklers in homes. Just something for the kitchen. I’m looking at some ballpark costs for installation of under 1,000$. Which is actually pretty neat and not that expensive. Yet once it’s mandated, that’s a permanent 500-1000$ addition to construction costs.

          You have to do a grim calculation. How many lives will it save across the country every year vs. the cost it adds to newly built homes.

  2. eg

    The “market” under current arrangements has signally failed to meet the housing needs of all citizens. I don’t believe that this problem can be solved without significant state intervention in the form of public housing.

  3. Polar Socialist

    A mandatory video link (youtube). Don’t let the title fool you, it’s more about USA. Finland is merely lifted as an example of successful social experiments in USA and EU actually becoming a national policy.

    For those too busy to watch it, the video presents sample, tested solution to homelessness: put people in permanent homes, and most of their problems (which may have caused the homelessness to begin with) become much easier to solve. It really is that simple.

    1. Cristobal

      Yes, all It takes is Money. Don’t tell me there is no money. All It takes is priorities.

    2. Adam Eran

      Terrific video.

      Here’s another article citing the same study (and others) by a retired L.A. planner.

      There’s no clearer evidence of pure laissez-faire capitalism’s failure than the homeless beggars at major intersections

    3. chris

      That’s a good video. But there’s a lot of people in the US who can’t manage to be housed without a lot of extra support too. I have family who just want to be high. All the time. We’ve housed them several times. The properties we buy for them to live in end up being destroyed by accumulated filth from their friends and drug habits.

      My understanding is a significant portion of the current homeless population suffers similar problems. I’ve heard that group may be as high a 1/3 of the nation’s homeless. Maybe higher percentages in places like San Francisco or LA or Chicago. We basically need institutional care and harm reduction for these millions of people who can’t take care of themselves and can’t live on their own as civilized people anymore.

      I’d hope that having an addict for a son would wring some empathy from our President. Not holding my breath.

      1. John Taylor

        It’s hilarious you think any of us are “civilized”, we are all braindead consumer clients. It’s all about business and homelessness isn’t good for business.

  4. ChrisPacific

    It’s not technically all that difficult to end homelessness. New Zealand did it in 2020 for traceability (otherwise a transient homeless population could have been an invisible transmission vector for Covid). It was set up in a matter of weeks. It helped that overseas visitors had dropped to zero and there were a large number of accommodation providers eager to take government money and stem their losses, but with a bit more money it could have worked equally well regardless.

    The reasons why we don’t are ideological rather than practical.

    1. GramSci

      And pre-requisite to all that is this:

      Discrepancies between low personal incomes and very high personal incomes should be lessened; and I therefore believe that in time of this grave national danger, when all excess income should go to stopping the pandemic and climate change, no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year.

      Franklin Delano Roosevelt
      Message to Congress, 27 April 1942

      Obviously Roosevelt was speaking of a different, but no more grave, “national danger”. His $25k is the equivalent of $400-500k in today’s dollars.

      How long will it be until some U.S. president again delivers this message to Congress?

    2. JBird4049

      >>>The reasons why we don’t are ideological rather than practical.

      Let’s not forget greed as well because developers and investors bribe politicians into not solving the housing problems as it would reduce their profits.

    3. ChrisRUEcon


      >> The reasons why we don’t are ideological rather than practical.

      Exactly … 💯

  5. ALM

    The cost of housing, college education, and healthcare has exploded in the neoliberal era because the U.S. has become a financialized, rentier society heavily indebted to creditors. The only solution to homelessness, ruinously expensive higher education, and healthcare profiteering is public housing, public higher education, and single payer healthcare. Complicated workarounds are merely half-hearted, half-baked measures that don’t do nearly enough to be taken seriously as solutions.

  6. upstater

    No mention of public housing from this “progressive” commentator. Public housing need not be Cabrini Green, Desire or Grenfell Tower, but that image and the inability of government to develop and manage housing it etched into the public’s mind with good reason. Recalling Aurelien’s Extractive Politics essay, this is the desired outcome of TPTB. The crapification of all levels of government has inculcated low expectations in the population. As a consequence we expect nothing and demand nothing.

    Then the politicians, cronies and benefactors have a housing feeding frenzy, which is a combination of section 8 vouchers, lax code enforcement, a bit of gentrification rehabs and high rent new builds. Locally the city of Syracuse overhauled zoning last month allowing higher density development, mixed use buildings and a mandate that new apartment buildings have 10% of units set at below market rates (I wonder how the quality will compare to market priced units? Separate entrances, perhaps? ). I wonder who wrote the statute? The state even built attractive apartments (made with bricks!) in the 70s, which were sold off to “investors” and decayed to such an extent they were razed 30 years later and replaced by subsidized developers. Rinse, repeat.

    Call me cynical, but the city has granted 10 year property and other tax giveaways to construct literally thousands of bedrooms in “luxury student housing” complexes for rich SU kids, while 75% of existing rental stock has been deemed in a state of decay (lack of code enforcement perhaps? ). 40% of city residents are below the poverty line and shootings are near daily now.

    Access to affordable housing has a nice ring to it with focus groups, like access to affordable health insurance. Tweaking market based solutions obviously have NOT worked, and that is what Sonali Kolhatkar seems to advocate.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Public housing is exactly the answer. Our city wrings it hands about the lack of affordable housing all the time and the “solutions” on offer just don’t work. They have tried increasing density by allowing construction on substandard lots, and the result has been poorly built housing on lots now susceptible to flooding that still sell for a half million a piece to people with more $$$ than good sense.

      We have had an influx of immigrants with nowhere to go, so the city has opened up a sports arena to house people temporarily on more than one occasion. Recently those immigrants had a public protest to complain about their living conditions(!) which did not go over well, especially considering the tent cities popping up everywhere that the locals are living in. If we can go out of our way to house the immigrant community, why not the homeless too?

      But it’s the same here, with new construction largely being luxury condos and such, with a few “below market rate” units thrown on for good measure. And call me cynical, but who exactly is insuring that those units stay below market rate when the original subsidized tenant moves out? I have asked my better half who is in local government who actually enforces this stuff once projects are completed and I’m not sure anybody actually does. But the idea of it all makes wealthy liberals feel less guilty I suppose.

      I’m a little skeptical that 30% of income is being spent on rent – it sure seems like it would be much higher than that giving the prevailing rents and wages. I heard of one small house recently going for a half million, and it was bought by a local restaurant owner to house staff, because they couldn’t afford anywhere on their own. My guess is that there will be people living in pretty cramped quarters, and i supect that if that 30% figure is true, it’s only because you wind up with 6 people sharing a two bedroom to keep costs down. And while I’ll give the local restaurant owners the benefit of the doubt in trying to be helpful, I have seen this happen all over the place lately and now you have a working class whose housing is tied to their job and could very easily lose both at the same time. Its the company store all over again.

      The government needs to build housing, but it needs to come from the federal level. My once blue collar town has turn into a wealthy enclave over the last 20 years, with crappy little s**tboxes going for astronomical prices. If you try financing the necessary housing by raising local taxes, it’s just going to push the last blue collar home owners who have roots here right out of town.

      1. JBird4049

        The United States in the past has built good public housing and the city of Vienna has been building mixed public housing for a century, but we can’t seem to do, today? I say baloney. There is also the problem of badly built and maintained public housing because the owners want to push up their profits.

  7. TomDority

    Query: As normal, sane human beings, where should we lay the heavier taxes, on industry or speculation?.
    “The great sore spot in our modern commercial life is found on the speculative side. Under present laws, which foster and encourage speculation, business life is largely a gamble, and to “get something for nothing” is too often considered the keynote to “success”. The great fortunes of today are nearly all speculative fortunes; and the ambitious young man just starting out in life thinks far less of producing or rendering service than he does of “putting it over” on the other fellow. This may seem a broad statement to some: but thirty years of business life in the heart of American commercial activity convinces me that it is absolutely true.
    If, however, the speculative incentive in modern commercial life were eliminated, and no man could become rich or successful unless he gave “value received” and rendered service for service, then indeed a profound change would have been brought in our whole commercial system, and it would be a change which no honest man would regret.”- John Moody, Wall Street Publisher, and President of Moody’s Investors’ Service. Dated 1924
    “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
    They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
    Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.”
    Election eve speech at Madison Square Garden (October 31, 1936)
    Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    So maybe we get some traction on the removal of taxes from industry, and the taxing of privilege and monopoly like the FIRE sector – the predatory side of the fire sector – like speculative real estate, like stock buy back finance, private equity strip mining of companies, stock market goosing and high speed trading skim operations, and the many other scams and tricks that add up to overhead and asset price inflation.
    Was it like ten years ago that 40% of all corporate profits were had in the FIRE sector – a sector that should be considered a cost overhead instead of an addition to GDP

  8. paul

    ‘Holmless’ is not a problem that can be solved.

    The inputs to homeless are myriad

    Marital breakdown
    Mental breakdown
    Physical health breakdown
    External policies (I’m looking towards ukraine)

    It can be ameliorated by benevolent,well implemented policy.

    But that does not happen very often.

    And can ,only,be ever an amelioration.

    If the grounds are no no good, all the building in the world will fall into the excavation.

    Society first,provision as demanded.

    1. tegnost

      How come there weren’t this many homeless 20 years ago?
      Society first? That was bailing out the banksters by raising your property values and keeping the min wage $7.25/hr.”Society” threw them out on the street and now is whining that they’re on the street.

      1. JBird4049

        I would start at forty or forty-five years ago as going by memory this is when the housing crisis started. It is just that the rising mountains of homeless are increasingly difficult to ignore.

        1. Starry Gordon

          I began to see people living in public buildings and parks around 1980. It occurs to me that there was a famous election that year. Someone called it “The revolt against the poor.”

          1. JBird4049

            1983 would be about. I remember hearing an apartment broker complaining about three years later housing had become too expensive for retail working, which I was and was looking for anything. I could barely afford a room. Even at the new $15.50 per hour minimum, it would be just as difficult as it was forty years ago, which makes sense as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI calculator has the cost of living at one-third of then although housing, like education and medicine, has increased much more than inflation. This is why I do not think well enough of the official numbers for inflation. Maybe at the probable approval of an $18 minimum wage in 2024 might start to push wages to equal of what it was forty-five years ago.

            Of course, the roughly 50 trillion dollars has stolen by the top 10%, really the top 1% from the bottom 90% since 1975; now, it is 2.5 trillion per year, if it had been paid proportionally to the bottom 90% they would be making double what they were paid. That is where all the money from the increasing productivity. And if the California minimum wage was $31 per hour or over sixty-four thousand dollars per year. A person can rent a half decent one bedroom and certainly a studio apartment with that.

            2.5 trillion divided by 158 million counted workers is just over $15,000 per year. The entire American economy would be much wealthier because of all the money being spent on things other than yachts, mansions, and stock buybacks.

  9. LB

    What about the role drug addiction and mental illness play in homelessness? How was this overlooked in this study? I am a member of a community garden that house been surrounded for three years and counting by the homeless. Due to the 9th circuit’s ruling that the homeless must be offered housing before a camp can be eradicated, the city built temporary housing and at this time has a large parking lot set up for their RVs and campers. (Facilities, water, and security provided). Guess what? There are very few takers among the homeless. The right to do what they want to do is paramount. How can addicts and mentally ill people get to call the shots? They—and the citizens around them—end up being surrounded with the filth, crime, and other hazards they create when allowed to live like this. This travesty is everywhere in this country and to limit the focus that it is a result of housing cost is foolhardy and won’t help one bit.

    1. tegnost

      The rent is too high.
      Not all homeless are drug addicts or mentally ill, particularly before they become homeless, and being homeless will increase drug addiction and mental illness.
      RV’s and campers? The RV’s and campers I’ve seen are barely roadworthy if at all and very expensive to repair.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        When I lived in Seattle in the 90s, there were plenty of drug addicts, and they tended to overdose inside inside the apartments they could afford to rent. I found this out first hand with a couple a really bad roommates I had back in the day. You could afford a decent apartment with front of house restaurant wages and use your disposable income to party like a rock star if you so chose.

        Now that same job will have you living in a tent, and the drug users among the homeless likely not partying like rock stars, but using to alleviate the despair.

      2. Lb

        They (the RVs) for the most part are derelict, but even when the city offered to buy them, a lot would not take the money because that’s where they want to live. The city also offered to repair those that could be repaired. You had to have proof of ownership before that could happen and of course that was lacking in a lot of cases or it was discovered the vehicles were stolen.

        Not all homeless are drug addicts and mentally ill…of course. Those that aren’t are the people that usually want the help offered and are the easiest people to move into housing because they don’t want to be on the street where it is so dangerous.

        I have had three years and still counting of this kind of situation and any empathy, and accompanying ignorance, withered a long time ago. These are not good neighbors. There needs to be less letting them do what they want to do and more of relocating them to humane city sponsored places where there is running water, shelter, security and treatment. Anybody that argues against this hasn’t lived with the filth and crime generated by the homeless camp residents. And I am glad that an audit is being done to figure out how millions of tax dollars have gone down the drain with very little accomplished.

      3. Lb

        The city offered to buy the derelict RVs. Most didn’t take them up because it’s all the have. The city also offered to repair the ones that could be fixed, but you how to have the vehicle registered to you and most didn’t have that proof. Also, a few of the vehicles were stolen.

        Of course not all are addicts and mentally ill. Those that aren’t are the easiest to help because they don’t want to live on the dangerous streets.

        People that argue to let the camps exist are not really advocates of the people there. There is rampant drug use, crime, filth, no running water, and excrement. For whatever reason these are people that cannot take care of themselves and they are the worst of neighbors. They should be relocated to humanely run locations with decent shelter, amenities, security, and treatment.

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      I sympathize with your plight and don’t doubt a word you say, but I’m old enough to remember a time before The Homeless, which suggests it’s not an eternal condition. That may be of no material help to you right now, but nor is it immutable fate.

      Growing up in 1960’s NYC, there were no homeless, as we now understand the term. There were “bums” and “winos,” broken-down working men who you might see sleeping it off on the sidewalk, but who in fact usually lived in cheap single room occupancy (SRO) hotels. Manhattan was thick with them, and they ranged from Bowery fleabags where you paid by the night for a cubicle with chicken wire strung over the top, to solid old dowagers long past their prime and inhabited by widowed charwomen and retired bachelor seamen. They later were filled with destitute Black families and single men at the very end of the Postwar migration from the South, and coincident with the city’s rapid de-industrialization. These places have been gone since the early 1980’s, converted, via renovation or demolition, into luxury apartments and hotels.

      If memory serves, in the early-mid 1970’s, corresponding to the NYC fiscal crisis (the opening round of Neoliberalism and a half-century of revanchism) the terms of art were “Street People” and “Bag Ladies” (long out of use) for people you now saw living on the street, refugees from the emptied-out mental health institutions. That quickly morphed into The Homeless (with a feckless “Left” nowlargely occupying itself with tinkering with the language, thus The Unhoused).

      There are a lot of damaged and needy people out there, people who frequently victimize themselves and others. They need ample services in addition to housing. In order for the newly-provided housing to work, there would need to be sorting of different kinds (as there was in the early days of public housing)… and there is also a subset people who need to be humanely isolated from society, for their own and others’ protection, so they can heal and become socially functional.

      But if we raised the minimum to a living wage, and provided decent, affordable housing en masse, the crisis we’re seeing would abate. It’s happened before.

      1. JBird4049

        >>>But if we raised the minimum to a living wage, and provided decent, affordable housing en masse, the crisis we’re seeing would abate. It’s happened before.

        And don’t forget healthcare, but it’s moot because the corrupt and the wealthy make money from this dystopia. Just like how the United States spend a greater percentage of its GDP than any other country on Earth and still has a collapsing medical system.

        1. chris

          Yes. When cities get hot enough that the sick and homeless can’t cool off by sweating, they’ll die. When the winter comes, those who made it through the summer but can’t get to warming options will die. We’ll see the population of the miserable slowly ground to dust. I know I will hear our Democrat party still swear they’re fighting for them when the last drug addicted person who had their organs damaged by heat stress succumbs to frost bite.

    3. Cristobal

      what do you suppose the role that high rent plays in drug addiction and mental illness (some crazy people have good reason to be ¨crazy¨)

  10. The Rev Kev

    Next year as the elections loom closer and homelessness is maybe an even bigger problem as the world may be in recession by then, it might occur to more than a few people that if only one tenth of all the money, resources and political will had been devoted to homelessness as to the Ukraine war effort, that perhaps all those people would be nearly gone off the streets. Something to think about and where DC’s priorities are.

    1. paul

      That is the very pith of it

      There was a rather revealing moment when our first flunky minister met ukranian refugees,

      “where all the men” he guilelessy asked.

      The stock answer was they are off fighting.
      The non stock answer was they are playing for time until they can be reunited away from the carnage.

      Seeding the garden with vicotria nuland’s particular bush

      An alienated bloc in every democracy!

      What on earth could be done with that?

      1. Susan the other

        The Ukrainians emigrated. Two years+ ago I noticed some interesting characters working in the grocery store and liquor store. Some of them, tall blond guys, were trying to hide the fact that they were Ukrainian, probably to avoid controversy, and they spoke Castilian Spanish to each other so we would think they were Latinos. But their Spanish was so perfect it was too obvious. And the guy in the liquor store was clearly hostile – when I asked him if he was Ukrainian he snapped “I am European.” So where all the men were was as far away as they could get, as fast as they could get. Everybody in Ukraine knew what was coming.

  11. John

    I need to object. I spent 23 years running a large homeless shelter in Canada. I also spent much of that time crawling around in a database collecting information on 50,000 individuals who experienced homelessness.

    The key to solving any problem is to ask the right questions. The wrong questions are being asked, and as long as that is happening there will never be a solution to homelessness.

    In Canada, Homelessness is what happens when Community Fails. In the population I studied there were people who had been very rich, and very poor, from every nation, every level of education and social class. I had a Shakespearian Playwright & University Professor who personally knew all the great actors of the past century freeze to death. I had the Engineer in charge of the North Sea drilling die on our streets. I had the children of the very rich. I also had many indigenous people who lived very tragic lives. There were also Mentally ill people from all the war zones of the planet, and refugees seeking to escape corrupt Mexican Police. The only thing they had in common was they had no “community of support” for many different reasons. The key factor is that they had no “community of support”.

    To put it in different terms, there are in my city significantly more “empty bedrooms” than homeless people. The reason why the homeless are not in those empty bedrooms is because community has failed, not because of lack of housing.

    Fundamentally, every human needs a group of people to whom they belong, and something positive they contribute to the people around them. When this is missing, anyone is at risk of being homeless.

    1. Eclair

      Thank you, John, for pointing out that ‘even human needs a group of people to whom they belong …’

      The Amish, a small but rapidly growing percentage of the US population, do not have a homeless ‘problem.’ The community takes care of their own, the elderly, the chronically ill, the blind, the deaf, the mentally impaired. And, as you also point out, all have something positive that they contribute, if only stories and memories.

      My Amish friend, an older single woman who has always run her own small business, as well as working on small local ‘English’ farms, once confided to me that she has no fears for her old age. She will always have supportive family; over 200 first cousins, scores of nieces and nephews, as well as her immediate ‘church’ community of about 15 families (as many as can comfortably fit in the ‘front room’ for Sunday church service, lunch and afternoon cake and coffee and talk.). Her ‘world’ is small but she has a well-defined place in it.

      1. JBird4049

        A community needs resources from somewhere and something to coalesce around. It seems that half a century deliberately atomizing society and depriving the people even the minimum needed to survive has done its work.

  12. Gregorio

    As we’re seeing in many west coast cities, allowing homeless people to live in tents and clapped out RVs on the streets of residential neighborhoods, has become an effective way to lower real estate values, as evidenced by the increasing number of abandoned homes in the worst affected areas. It becomes extremely difficult to sell a home for any price when the street out front is a homeless encampment littered with discarded hypodermic needles, garbage, and feces.

    1. Wukchumni

      In my forays through the City of Angles over the past decades you can’t help but notice the desperation in terms of real estate…Location-Location-Location, last month I saw quite a number of tents within 50 feet of a freeway, living LA vida carbon monoxide.

      Before the turn of the century Harry Shearer used to call Santa Monica-home of the homeless, as it was about the only place you’d see those down and out, but they are everywhere now, nadir next to zenith, the latter empty of empathy as for you say-there goes the neighborhood.

      Don’t think anything will really solve the homeless issue, but it’ll solve us right in how we go about treating them, and you get the idea the haves are fed up with the have nots in their midst.

  13. Carolinian

    Sounds like it is that hard. After all CA is now run by our supposedly more socially concerned political party but real estate interests rule the roost just as much as in, say, where I live. If Dems were going to put out the FIRE wouldn’t they have done it decades ago?

    Oddly a Republican area like mine may actuality show more concern for the problem and some of the considerable housing that is going up is subsidized for the poor. In fact I’d say the homeless visibility downtown has gone down in recent times for whatever reason. Civic boosterism may be the fuel for a solution more than CA NIMBY-ism.

  14. Societal Illusions

    Another “symptom” in search of solutions, ignoring the ultimate causations. Why do we accept the status quo as sacrosanct and inviolate and dabble around the edges?

    1. Susan the other

      Because that’s politics. We need hard and fast legislation in every state, as well as an amendment to the dear old Constitution, that provides and protects a minimum level of well being for everyone. And also legislation that secures the rights of Nature. There otta be some synergy there. And it could provide an excellent off ramp for all those useless, destabilizing financialized profits which curiously go critical mass when they are so desperately stranded as they currently are.

  15. David in Friday Harbor

    Putting together these pieces of the puzzle, one can only conclude that our economy is designed to keep ordinary Americans living hand to mouth, running on an endless treadmill just to keep from falling into homelessness.

    The libertarian/neoliberal dystopia of De-Industrialization and Globalization have made it impossible for vast numbers of people to feed, clothe, or house themselves. This is why so many of the unhoused are over age 50 or members of so-called “out” groups. Eventually you fall off the hamster-wheel of gigs and cheery service-providing.

    We can “build housing” all day long and game-out who gets to “own” it and collect the rents, but if people have no means of paying any rent it will sit vacant surrounded by tents and discarded needles.

  16. Mildred Montana

    I’ve said this before, I hope it bears repeating. The homeless are *not* a homogeneous population easily lumped into one all-inclusive category. Like other populations it is diverse. Roughly speaking it can be divided into five groups:

    1. The addicted
    2. The mentally ill
    3. Those with behavioral problems not caused by 1 or 2.
    4. The downright criminal, ostracized by society because of their records
    5. Finally, those who are only down on their luck and can function well if given a chance.

    Government policies never seem to recognize this, that before any headway can be made on the problem the necessary task of “triaging” must be done. 1. 2. 3. and 4. need to be institutionalized with appropriate care, counselling, regulations, and security precautions. Otherwise any accommodation provided them is at serious risk of damage, not to mention potential threats to neighbors. Only 5. is amenable to immediate and unconditional help.

    I was homeless due to an addiction for six months ten years ago, so I like to think that I know how the ground lies. What saved me is that I was invited into a transition home for recovery. It wasn’t just a place to live while I carried on with my addiction. It had strict rules like mandatory chores, meetings, and random drug tests. Violations of any of them meant summary eviction. No appeal. But that rigorous regimen straightened me out.

    So that’s my opinion on the micro-level. On the macro? Well the Fed ought to congratulate itself for its 15-year experiment with ZIRP. It so successfully blew up a real-estate bubble that young people today can no longer afford a house and can barely afford rent on a one-bedroom apartment. It saved the economy (see: FIRE) while destroying a generation or two.

    1. Give Them Housing

      With all due respect, you in fact don’t know what you’re talking about.

      You’re essentially making a series of hard divisions; four categories of problems that need to be contained and managed, and then one category of ‘worthy people’.

      But the reality is that there is lots of crossover. People lose housing and turn to drugs as a coping mechanism. Do this long enough and you can develop more permanent brain damage. People become ‘criminals’ because it is very, very easy to get into a doomloop of cascading police and ‘justice’ system persecution (pee in a bush once and get caught, that’s public nudity and now you’re a sex offender. Oh, you missed your court date? Now you have a warrant out for you, and so on. And no, that is not a rare, contrived scenario).

      As for the actually insane, or people with lesser personality disorders (I know multiple homeless best described as 50 going on 8; they aren’t developmentally delayed, they’re completely stalled), very often these people were already housed in some sort of arrangement that then fell apart (parents died is a common one).

      The number one thing that begins to ameliorate all of these problems, and sets people on a path with a much greater chance of dealing with any other issue, is housing, full stop.

      1. chris

        I can count several family members and former friends who weren’t homeless when they turned to drugs. They just wanted to be high. All the time. When homelessness followed years of that behavior they were tired of fighting it. I don’t know how we help them without some kind of institutional care that essentially removes their agency as citizens.

        1. Give Them Housing

          Your anecdotes aren’t data.

          I also suspect there was deeper damage in your family and yours isn’t a full accounting of what happened anyway. Trauma is extremely common.

      2. CanCyn

        I didn’t get the impression that MM was saying that her first four categories were ‘unworthy’, just more complicated to assist. You are absolutely right that housing is a necessary first step for everyone. But for most, and especially the addicted and mentally ill, it is only a first step and in some cases probably needs to be some kind of supervised/assisted situation. Those down on their luck probably need help finding work. It is not like like you can just hand many of these people keys to a furnished apartment and call it done.

    1. Glen

      Thanks for posting this.

      My first job was minimum wage – $1.90/hr. (in 1974)
      My second job was a union wage – $6.75/hr. (in 1975)

      Minimum wage in 2023 is $7.25/hr.

  17. Karl

    I wonder if a “carbon tax and dividend” thought experiment might help us understand how the homeless benefit the rest of us by having an energy efficient way of life. Maybe we should compensate them? If so, what would this level of compensation be, whether or not the U.S. does decide to implement an economy-wide tax-and-dividend scheme.

    According to the Tax Foundation a carbon tax of $50/mtCO2 would generate around $200 billion/year in “dividends” nation-wide. Many economists (e.g. Paul Stiglitz) say the appropriate level of taxation to reflect the “social cost of carbon emissions” is at least $100/mtCO2 (others put the number closer to $200/mtCO2). At such levels, approximately $400-800 billion/year would be generated. Given the U.S. has 125 million households, a tax that reflects the social cost of carbon would generate $3000-6000 per household per year ($250-$500/month) in tax-free “dividends”. So each single homeless person provides approximately this free benefit for the rest of us. This could justify a check or housing voucher for this amount as a “thank you” for not being like the rest of us housed, gas guzzling consumers.

    Then, the rest of us who use few fossil fuels will want this dividend as well. This in turn could generate support for making it universal.

    Like the CBO economist Alice Rivlin used to say, we should always create taxation schemes that do more than collect revenue, but help solve social problems by the incentives and disincentives they create.

    Like so many commenters here, it all comes down to priorities and political will. These in turn require courage and imagination.

  18. Jeff Z

    Probably too late for anyone to see, but this has stuck with me since I first read it a couple of years ago.

    Key quotes:

    We decided to make the housing unconditional,” says Kaakinen. “To say, look, you don’t need to solve your problems before you get a home. Instead, a home should be the secure foundation that makes it easier to solve your problems.”

    But Housing First is not just about housing. “Services have been crucial,” says Helsinki’s mayor, Jan Vapaavuori, who was housing minister when the original scheme was launched. “Many long-term homeless people have addictions, mental health issues, medical conditions that need ongoing care. The support has to be there.”

    But if Housing First is working in Helsinki, where half the country’s homeless people live, it is also because it is part of a much broader housing policy. More pilot schemes serve little real purpose, says Kaakinen: “We know what works. You can have all sorts of projects, but if you don’t have the actual homes … A sufficient supply of social housing is just crucial.”

    It has invested heavily, too, in homelessness prevention, setting up special teams to advise and help tenants in danger of losing their homes and halving the number of evictions from city-owned and social housing from 2008 to 2016.

    “We own much of the land, we have a zoning monopoly, we run our own construction company,” says Riikka Karjalainen, senior planning officer. “That helped a lot with Housing First because simply, there is no way you will eradicate homelessness without a serious, big-picture housing policy.”

  19. spud

    i posted a much longer fleshed out post to this fine article by michael hudson, and fine analyses by Yves yesterday, it went into moderation and never reappreared. i must have posted something wrong. so here is my shorter take.

    the estimates of lost manufacturing jobs from bill clintons free trade is anywhere from 4-7 million or more jobs by 2008.

    i have seen estimates of the spinoff support jobs that manufacturing creates. many of those jobs were also union, or high paying.

    in my youth i worked in two union shops, and most union members there owned their own homes, most were not renters.

    so if a manufacturing job creates high paying spinoff jobs, what is the total estimate of high paying jobs that disappeared due to bill clintons treason? we may never know, but conservative estimates of spin offs created, is four for every manufacturing job.

    now all four most likely did not disappear, but maybe half did. so the number of jobs that supported mortgages in this country vanished at the stoke of a pen from a corrupt fanatic.

    bubbles can go on a long long time, and as we see today all of these bubbles and then some, were the creation of bill clintons disastrous policies that turned america into a oligarchic casino.

    but when you remove untold millions of high paying jobs that supported those bubbles, the jig is up. workers could no longer service their debt, and bill clintons house of cards came tumbling down.

    so all analyses is correct.

  20. N Light N

    RE: “But there is no shortage of housing in the nation.”

    I agree with the aforementioned.

    What you do have in the U.S. is a shortage of valid and rational laws, and a political mechanism unwilling to represent the American public – other than to ensure that they are subject to selective propaganda, chicanery, and oppression.

    Affordable homes? Forget it. The non-taxpaying billionaire ruling class, and their parasitic-bankster- accomplices, usurped and restructured the system to aggrandize themselves – through instigated- periodic-crashes, foreclosure, and expropriation. Further, through economic chaos, unemployment, and homelessness, a portion of the American public is likely to become rageful and commit criminal behavior – hence, the billionaire ruling class can conveniently maintain prison inventory, and appreciate their prison stocks (conflict-of-interest on steroids). Moreover, criminal behavior can be leveraged to redirect the unemployed into the military – you can die for your country and the corporation!

    Attempting to employ logic – in regard to U.S. unregulated capitalism – is illogical. Until the knavery is banished, and the system redeemed, it is foolish to expect good-faith change.

    1. Late Introvert

      My friends and family ask me what can we do, when I present similar arguments to them. They know it’s true, they can see it now.

      I say get the money out of political campaigns, and they all nod their head, conservative and liberal (because no rich folks in my cohort, at all – LOL). How to actually do that? Another story.

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