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US laws exacerbated the homeless crisis — now, they can help to end it

Albert Martinez, who has lived for 20 years on the streets of Los Angeles, sits outside his tent on a sidewalk in Venice Beach
Getty Images

Right now, as Congress negotiates cuts to President Biden’s initiative to Build Back Better, millions of Americans are without a stable — or any — place to live. Many critical provisions hang in the balance, but one thing is certain: Without stable housing, their chances of success are diminished. Congress must include substantial, transformative funding increases for housing for the poorest Americans. 

The evidence is clear and visible. Tent cities are proliferating across the country, growing numbers of people — including many who are working but can’t afford housing — are living cars and many more are doubling up. The pandemic has highlighted the life-threatening consequences of the absence of a home, its implications for entire communities and for our collective ability to stop the spread of the virus. Extreme inequality — of which homelessness and dire poverty are a symptom — also threatens our democracy, undermining its basic premise by excluding so many from the basic resources needed for full participation.  

It has become commonplace to describe homelessness as “intractable,” a problem that will “always be with us.” But despite this popular perception, homelessness has not always been with us, nor does it have to be. 

Modern, large-scale homelessness exploded across the country in the early 1980s, driven by drastic cuts to social programs and especially to federal funding for low-income housing. In 1979, Congress funded 347,600 new units of low-income housing; by 1983, that number had been slashed to 2,630. These cuts came on the heels of the loss of around 1 million units of inexpensive single-room occupancy housing in the 1970s. 

No coincidence, these cuts were accompanied by a racist, “welfare queen” ideology, promoted by President Reagan and his administration, that blamed poor people for their plight. They were part of a larger effort to cut social programs including income support for disabled people and poor families and paint government aid as a sign of laziness or failure. And they built on much earlier policies promoted by Democrats and Republicans alike to exclude African-Americans and other people of color from housing. 

Thanks to a vigorous bipartisan campaign a few years later, Congress funded emergency relief to address homelessness, spurring the growth of an emergency shelter system that provided life-saving aid to some — but by no means all — and that was never meant to solve the problem. It was meant only as an immediate, short-term measure. Congress promised longer-term aid, in the form of funding for low-income housing. But the funding that was cut in the early 1980s was never replaced. As a result, currently, only one in four of those poor enough to qualify for federal housing assistance receive it. 

Meanwhile, the crisis has only gotten worse. A recent study showed that 87 percent of new development is luxury housing. At the same time, affordable housing — especially for the poorest of the poor — continues to be lost to gentrification. Even middle-class people are having a hard time affording housing. Black Americans are disproportionately represented in the homeless population, further worsening racial disparities.

It’s a fallacy to think that this injustice is cost-free, even in simple monetary terms. Each year,  each day, communities across the country waste money on futile, counterproductive police efforts to “sweep” away people living on the streets and other public places; in the absence of other options, they simply move to another sidewalk, park or underpass. 

In just one example, in  2019, LA spent some $30 million on such sweeps. Meanwhile, the people who are “swept” often lose critical documents they need to exit their plight or simply to survive — like IDs they need to apply for food stamps, jobs, housing or even shelter — while gaining an arrest record, piling on another barrier to housing, employment or other help. 

Unlike other developed countries, the United States does little to recognize economic and social rights, such as the right to housing that is enshrined in foundational human rights instruments that the U.S. led the world in drafting after World War II. President Biden embraced a platform that recognized that housing should be a right for all, not a privilege for some, and his initiative includes transformational funds that would finally make good on the decades-old promise.  

The housing investments in Build Back Better have the potential to end homelessness and stem its tide. They would save and transform lives while also saving taxpayer dollars. What more could a reasonable voting public — and the politicians speaking for it — ask for? 

Maria Foscarinis is the founder and former executive director of the National Homelessness Law Center. She has advocated at the national level for solutions to homelessness since 1985. She is a lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School.

Tags Affordable housing Homelessness Housing Housing First Joe Biden Public housing Social programs subsidized housing

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