The Number of Homeless People is About to Skyrocket

The Covid-19 pandemic will cause the number of homeless people and homeless families to skyrocket. This is not so much a prediction as a certainty. With government subsidies to people to help pay rent and mortgages at an end, and with unemployment benefits reduced, the number of adults and children on the streets will grow exponentially. Why is this?

The answer is that the few and the very wealthy, the oligarchs and the plutocrats, couldn’t give a damn about homeless people in the US. When money flowed to the homeless, during the years I was a grant writer for a homeless shelter and a volunteer at that shelter, there was Housing and Urban Development money for the homeless and grant money available from private charitable organizations. The romance with the homeless ended as austerity, spending on wars, and tax cuts for the wealthy became all the rage. Homelessness was seen as a nuisance. Corporate profits were hoisted as good above all else. Greed became a virtue.

As the economy became deindustrialized, the society put hordes of people onto the streets and into jails for warehousing and further exploitation. The diminished union movement put an exclamation point on it all.

There’s a series that can be seen on YouTube called Invisible People and I think one of its best segments aired in 2018. I may have been drawn to this episode because they filmed it in Ithaca, New York, a place that I love. Ithaca is a college town in upstate New York, which is the home of Cornell University and Ithaca College. Ithaca, like so many college towns across the US, has been especially hard hit by the pandemic because these schools employ lots of people in the area. It’s not much of a leap of faith to know instinctively that the number of homeless people will grow in places like Ithaca. During my last visit to Ithaca, I came upon a meal site based in a church and there was a long line that had queued up outside its door waiting for it to open. This was long before the pandemic hit.

The segment of Invisible People cited above travels into an undeveloped area of fields in Ithaca and the interviews and scenes of homeless people and homeless shelters is powerful. It would be impossible to view this video without a wrenching emotional and intellectual reaction.

Compare the scenes and people in that video with this short video I shot on a street in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts a few weeks ago. I did not have camera equipment with me at the time, so the video is shaky (A Pool and a Pandemic). Try to remain objective while watching this video. Compare what I portray in this video with the scenes of homeless people in Ithaca.

The point is that homelessness results from a predatory economic and social system where there are small numbers of big winners and lots of people without the means to survive in any level of comfort. Living in a comfortable nurturing environment is a basic human right. Those in the middle class may feel squeamish about homeless people, but masses of people understand that it’s the business as usual nature of the social and economic systems that creates homelessness and gives many the ability to accept its worst expressions. It’s no accident that a social class of those with almost no means is relegated to fields, the streets, and sometimes dangerous and overcrowded shelters. There are very few people who choose a life of homelessness, but most are driven there by job loss, domestic violence, and mental illness. Some have been cast out by their families and others have fallen to the scourge of substance abuse, a condition with a host of its own causes. The major cause of homelessness is that there is a limited stock of affordable housing and affordable rentals as home prices soar ever higher and higher for a host of reasons including the machinations of real estate investing and gentrification. Buying a first home in the area where I live is an almost unimaginable enterprise with real estate dynamics driving the price of homes and rental properties through the roof, while jobs that provide enough income for the purchase of a home are almost nonexistent.

Much can be learned about a society from how it treats its most vulnerable members.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).