There are many obstacles to ending homelessness.
The most fundamental one is the nature of our market-based economy, which has created an extreme polarization of wealth and poverty. A new study by the RAND Corporation shows that over the past forty years the wealthiest one percent of Americans has taken $50 trillion from the bottom ninety percent.
Out of this inequality new corporate empires have emerged built on rental housing. One such corporation owns 70,000 units, another owns 500,000. This gives them unchecked power to increase rents and allows them to create financial instruments (derivatives) based on their properties, as was dramatized in the movie The Big Short. They have little incentive to make housing affordable since they make money from the derivatives that are based upon your house or apartment even if you can’t make your monthly payment.
These corporate landlords do more than just sit around and count their money. They are very politically active–collectively they have given $368,000 to No on Prop 21, a movement sponsored by the California Apartment Association which seeks to defeat a measure on the November ballot that would institute statewide rent control.
The LA Times recently described billionaire Geoffrey Palmer of Beverly Hills as “a real estate developer whose many projects include downtown Los Angeles apartments.” Those apartments are an arrow of gentrification aimed squarely at the homeless residents of downtown’s Skid Row. Palmer is the single biggest contributor to Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, kicking in $6,405,000.
Paying the rent or mortgage so you can avoid homelessness is difficult because of a lack of jobs, specifically good-paying jobs. Keeping a roof over your head is so difficult that some teaching assistants at the University of California have turned to prostitution to make the rent.
The continuing growth of homelessness is also facilitated by individuals and institutions who make a lot of money off of homelessness. They are often labeled, especially by the poor, as poverty pimps. These people are powerful and they are another obstacle to solving the problem it’s not to their advantage for homelessness to end. General Jeff, one of the leaders of the effort to establish a Skid Row neighborhood council, estimates that poverty pimps in downtown Los Angeles are taking in billions of dollars annually. For example, the executives of the Salvation Army. They live in a network of Southern California mansions and would have to give that up if they lost the ability to raise millions to manage homelessness, which is the opposite of ending it.
When politicians talk about housing the homeless, we too often take them at their word. But they aren’t talking about putting the homeless in a house or an apartment, they mean putting them in shelters. Shelters are warehouses at best, prisons at worst. Shelter residents are under military-style control 24 hours a day. Shelters separate families and treat people like convicts. Ask people who’ve lived in shelters if they are not safe to live in and, in my experience, they will always answer with an emphatic “No!”
Another obstacle is the police. Whenever the homeless gather, in groups of two or three or in larger communities, the police go in. Not doctors and nurses or social workers or housing and job specialists. Cops. The Los Angeles Police Department has destroyed over 16,000 homeless encampments in the past five years. On September 24, the same day that a Louisville grand jury declined to indict any police officers for killing Breonna Taylor, Orange County deputy sheriffs, part of the department’s “homeless outreach team,” shot and killed Kurt Andras Reinhold. Reinhold had a family and was a soccer coach. At the time, he was homeless.
Who Are the Homeless?
The standard answer, relentlessly promoted by the media, is that the homeless are lazy, mentally ill, or on drugs. These stereotypes are built on the alleged realities of the homeless who live on the street. There are millions of these folks, true enough, but they are only a good-sized tip of a giant iceberg. People in shelters are not counted as homeless, nor are the fifteen percent of college students without a place to stay. Over forty percent of young adults aged 18-34 have never left home. They are homeless. Over two million people over the age of fifty have had to move back in with their parents. There are millions of people couch surfing, living indoors only by the temporary grace of friends or relatives, not to mention countless people living in cars or RVs or packed in fifteen deep in somebody’s garage.
A small percentage of people in any category of the homeless may be mentally ill or on drugs, but the fundamental truth is very different.
For example, at a discussion group at the Hope LA church two summers ago, the keynote speaker was Adelina Lang. Lovely and well-dressed, Lang stepped to the mic and told the crowd that she had just graduated from college. There was heartfelt applause, a palpable feeling that one of our own had made it. Then she dropped the other shoe–she had lived in her car during her entire time in college and had yet to find a job. There are faculty at USC who have, indeed, found a job yet still live in homeless shelters.
Theo Henderson is a middle-aged man who has lived in a park in Chinatown in Los Angeles for the past six years. He is also the host of a podcast called We The Unhoused, which has garnered a worldwide audience in its fairly short existence. The podcast is a voice for many intelligent, insightful homeless folks in LA in addition to Henderson’s own often brilliant political commentary.
Recently there was an effort to establish a neighborhood council on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, to give that neighborhood a community forum that every other area in the city has. After a bitterly fought campaign led by the homeless themselves, the effort to establish a council was narrowly defeated in a local vote where the massive spending of real estate developers won out.
Rita Dunn is homeless in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, where she is running for a seat on the Chatsworth neighborhood council. Dunn heads up the organization H Minus (i.e. minus housing) which has 250 homeless members. They are trying to turn four miles of land along the local railroad tracks into a community land trust to live on.
At a 2019 symposium on ending homelessness at Cal State Fullerton the keynote presentation was given by Clemmie Williams, a rapper who’d been living in his van for many years. Fresh off the release of yet another powerful CD, Williams not only gave a devastating picture of life on the streets, he urged everyone to connect with the homeless to discover the intelligence and creativity they possess. He explained that homelessness is affecting every type of person, regardless of race, creed, age, or nationality.
In the fall of 2019, David Blumenthal, a photography professor at Cal State Northridge, assigned one of his classes to go out and give homeless people cameras and collaborate with them. Last January, the results were presented at an exhibition, How We See It, and the results were striking–photography that was at times subtle and thoughtful, at times screaming with pain, all beautifully presented. Hundreds of people turned out to see it all.
Each of these few examples which debunk the stereotypes of homeless people serve as symbols for countless others the media ignores. If all such examples were compiled in a document, it would be massive and potentially could prod the American people to re-examine the stereotypes they currently embrace.
The homelessness crisis causes so many of us to say “What can we do?” So millions of us, many who are homeless ourselves, go into our pocket to share a dollar or a sandwich or to help feed or clothe the homeless with our friends or our church. This solidarity is beautiful and necessary. But it doesn’t put one person who is living on the street into a home.
Sympathy is great. Sympathy can lead to connection, to action. But to END homelessness will take more than sympathy. It will take unity. We face specific problems in building such unity. The homeless are second class citizens. They are subject to laws directed at them, laws that apply only to the homeless. How many possessions they may own, where they can sit, where they can sleep, where they can eat and who can feed them.
Legalities aside, what’s even worse is the fact that almost everyone accepts the second class status of the homeless. I’m not talking about politicians or the haters who spit on the homeless, but to the huge mass of people who today view the homeless with sympathy. They also view them as second class citizens in the sense that they accept the solution to their problems as limited to shelters or charity. They don’t view such things as solutions to their problems, even though housing insecurity now hangs over the head of a majority of Americans.
Yet, despite all the confusion, unity does sporadically assert itself. In April of this year, one-third of Americans couldn’t pay their rent and polls showed that two-thirds of Americans felt that if you don’t have money, you should be able to stay in your home. Undoubtedly many of those former renters are now homeless.
In May of this year, Rich Jackson, executive editor of the Bloomington [Indiana] Herald Times, was informed of his termination as he stood in the parking lot of the newspaper’s headquarters. Jackson was also evicted from an apartment the paper had provided him and had no place to live In response, dozens of newspaper people from around the country sent a letter of protest to the CEOs of Gannett Corp., which owns the Herald Times. Undoubtedly many of them feared that with the wave of closures and mergers in the newspaper industry they might soon share Jackson’s fate.
Hard times set the conditions for unity but they are not enough. Unity is a conscious act and we will have to think our way into it while we fight to survive. As has happened many times in American history, we need a vision to be able to do that.
During the civil rights movement, the question kept coming up: What is this movement about? The agents of token integration insisted it was about how many blacks could go to this school, how many blacks could work at this job, could blacks use this library or that swimming pool. The civil rights movement fought these battles but was keenly aware that the goal of the token integrationists was to keep the civil rights movement on the defensive, keep them fighting in a never-ending circle without any chance of ending inequality. The response of the civil rights movement was simple and direct. They defined the purpose of the movement in one word: Freedom. This allowed the movement to go on the offensive. Freedom. This call inspired millions and allowed the movement to spread into every nook and cranny of the United States. Holding this moral high ground allowed the civil rights movement to win.
In the struggle to end homelessness, we face a similar question. What is this movement about? Which people will get housing while others don’t? How many possessions are the homeless allowed to have? Where can the homeless sleep? How many meals can we serve at our churches? We fight these battles, as we must. But like the civil rights movement we must be aware that if we only fight these limited battles, we are kept on the defensive and homelessness will continue to increase. Our response must be to go on the offensive, to capture the moral high ground. To do that, we have to define our struggle simply: Take the people without houses and put them in the houses without people. This call can inspire millions and allow the movement to spread into every nook and cranny of the United States. The end of homelessness will be able to actually appear on the horizon.
This is not pie in the sky. The pie is right here, in every neighborhood in America. The federal government owns hundreds of thousands of empty houses, most of which are move-in ready. According to Amnesty International, there are 18 million empty housing units in the United States. The American people have paid for all of these empty housing units through our taxes, public services, and subsidies to banks. We should be able to stay in them if we need to because, by any logical or moral standard, they belong to us.