Let’s Talk About Homelessness in the State of the Union
By Brian Davis
The problem of homelessness was once a prominent part of every Presidential campaign from Nixon, Carter to Reagan each released plans to house every American. It should be understood that Reagan’s plan (the last time the President was pushed to address homelessness) was rather specious in having every church and synagogue adopt “10 welfare families” until the inflation crisis was over. There were dramatic expansions of federal housing support from the 1960s to the mid 1980s that really made an impact. In 1984, Jesse Carpenter froze to death on a bench very near the federal agency in charge of housing and everything changed. The Homeless Persons Survival Act was written in the offices of the National Coalition for the Homeless and was passed in 1986 and began a huge escalation in federal dollars toward the emergency needs of those on the streets.
This resulted in a huge infusion of dollars to keep people from freezing to death, and a steady decline in the construction and repair of affordable housing. The problem of homelessness no longer was an emergency that politicians set their hair on fire to address. It became a routine to check people in every night, process their paperwork and have them wait in a bunk bed for a month, a year, a decade for the next available unit of affordable housing. Then it became to norm to have children skipping school because they lost their housing so we set up a program for homeless children. Every city started seeing people living in their cars, and that became a problem to overcome in the short term. Talented artists, teachers, athletes lined up for shelter and our community accepted that reality as well. Tents popped up and instead of creating housing opportunities, cities answered with tickets and arrests. The issue also fell off the Presidential docket except for some occasional volunteering at Thanksgiving or MLK Day. Homelessness became routine; shelter became the response and housing grew increasingly out of reach.
The United States is at the tail end of a crisis that caused thousands of deaths in the homeless community and did not discriminate based on your housing status or your income. We need to come together to repair the social safety net and commit to never again keeping a segment of the population in an extended state of emergency. The human body can only deal with so much stress; so much sleep deprivation; and only so much trauma. We have learned that stuffing as many people as possible into a gymnasium is not healthy and we know that periods of homelessness reduce the life expectancy of a segment of the population. While the growth of shelter in the late 20th Century has saved the life of hundreds of thousands of people, it has also extended the time the average person spends without stability by months if not years.
We need the President and Congressional leaders to regularly talk about homelessness again. We need to get back to a time when the federal government takes the lead in providing a plan to house everyone residing in the United States. We need to re-prioritize housing as a key piece of infrastructure in every community. Here are some things the President could say during the State of the Union address to get back to a time when we prioritized housing for voters:
- As I campaigned on, I want to see homelessness end in the United States. The first step down payment on that promise is universal access to a housing voucher coupled with a national prohibition on landlords not accepting the federal assistance program. If you can’t afford housing, the federal government will provide a hand up to those struggling.
- With the Omicron variant on the rise in the United States, we need to recommit to safety protocols for those without safe, secure housing that offers privacy. No city or local government should be engaged in any activities that disrupt those who are forced to live outside unless it is offering them a housing unit. Congregate shelters are not a safe alternative at this time until we have near universal vaccination rates.
- As we come out of the pandemic, dust ourselves off and put our minds to fixing all the holes left from this national emergency, one of the glaring issues is that the American system for meeting the emergency housing needs of the community does not work during a health emergency. We need to completely re-think shelter in the United States and focus on healthy alternatives to meet the needs of those with long term chronic health conditions including behavioral health issues.
- Why does the federal government have multiple definitions for the word “homeless”? This makes no sense and can be confusing the mom attempting to enroll her child in school and has to interact with multiple federal agencies all with a different definition of homelessness. We need to adopt the Department of Education definition as the standard for all federal, state and local jurisdictions. This is the easiest definition to understand and will make it a lot easier to provide services.
- The Housing First model is a proven success, and it needs to be adopted for every single individual seeking help with their lack of a safe place to sleep. We should prioritize preventing homelessness with legal representation, rental assistance and mediation services. If those fail, then how do we get the family back into housing within 24 hours of their seeking help? This should be the standard and every community needs to construct systems to engage every level of government to make this a reality.
- The United States needs to value the work of every single citizen who puts in 40 hours of work so that they can afford at least a one bedroom apartment in every single community. If a business cannot pay a living wage, then the government should provide a monthly tax credit to get the individual up to a living wage for their household. The businesses not able to pay living wages should be asked to pay a higher tax rate to subsidize these lower wage workers.
- Healthcare should not be tied to a job because that disproportionately leaves out those in the service sector and those who change jobs frequently. As I campaigned on, I want to expand Medicaid to include those who cannot find healthcare in the market. We may not be able to move toward universal health care, but we should be taking steps toward that goal every year. Coming out of a pandemic is the perfect time to move toward an expanded Medicaid program.
- If you cannot work because you are disabled in the United States that should not mean that you will live in poverty for the rest of your life. We need to reform the disability assistance to encourage those who can contribute in a meaningful way have that opportunity, and not face penalty for receiving some limited income. We also need to raise the standard of living of everyone on full disability so that their income translates into a living wage in the community in which they reside.
- Local jurisdictions are receiving millions of dollars from the federal government to serve those without housing and those with extremely low incomes, and they are turning around and harassing, arresting and threatening those very same people that the federal government is showering them with funding to serve. This is hypocritical to take the assistance and then punish those individuals the city has pledged to help. It stops now! If you want federal funds to feed, educate, house, and provide health care for, each city, county or local jurisdiction will have to certify that they are not using law enforcement as social workers to deal with behavioral health issues, homelessness, or poverty related complications.
While this is broader than strictly a homeless issue, we would be negligent if we did not mention that you need to tell us how you are going to re-institute voter protections especially for those who move frequently because of poverty issues. This is the most important issue to restore free and fair elections and remove all barriers to get every citizen to vote. We urge the President to address the path to passing the two voter protection laws that the House of Representatives already passed.
The collapse of the Build Back Better shows that Congress is hopelessly broken and needs significant reform. We need to tear down the current model for our democracy back to the studs and start over so that we can work together on a future national crisis and not have to lose 600,000 Americans unnecessarily. We need to restore representative democratic principles to force more universal participation in governance. We need to remove propaganda from tipping our governmental leaders to more authoritarian tendencies, and we need to protect a free and fair independent media. National crisis such as the pandemic can destabilize a government and in the blink of an eye a “savior” can come to power and crush the opposition.