What does it mean to be homeless? Does it mean that you live on the street or can it mean you live on someone’s couch? Is the homelessness rate going up or going down? As with all public policy matters, the devil is in the definitions. There’s a bill moving along in Congress called the Homeless Child and Youth Act that’s trying to expand the definition of “homeless,” which is causing an interesting, if distracting, debate within the housing community. (Rachel Cohen has a good recap at CityLab.)
This debate matters a great deal to a lot of homeless people that need help. Just exactly how many people are homeless depends on what you consider homeless. There is a finite amount of federal funding for homelessness services and where we send these funds impacts a lot of peoples’ lives, so it matters.
The bill is designed to expand the definition of homelessness to capture people, particularly children, who don’t live on the street or in shelters, but don’t have their own reliable or safe homes (maybe they are doubling up with family, maybe they live in an abusive home). Right now these people are not considered homeless by HUD standards (although other federal agencies do consider them homeless) and are therefore not eligible for assistance (more on this later.)
The debate comes down to who gets help given our limited resources: the truly, chronically homeless who might take a longer-term intervention or the housing insecure who might just need a short-term intervention? It’s a Sophie’s Choice-type trade-off that all sides of the political spectrum with a dog in this fight can debate in good faith.
I’ve been a longtime volunteer for the HOPE count, which is the main federal effort to count unsheltered homeless, so I care a great deal about this debate too. But I’m more interested in where the sausage is made: the nature of politics that surrounds public policy. Often times in America, our politics frame public policy debates in strikingly narrow terms that shroud the values that should be expressed, leaving us with false choices masked as hard-fought compromises.
Housing as an issue suffers a lot from this and the current debate over the definition of homelessness is a perfect example. Of course no one is “pro-homelessness” but the accepted scope of the debate has the practical effect of making everyone pro-homelessness. Why? Because the debate isn’t about ending homelessness. And it should be. Because we can.
Let’s start with a simple premise: We are the wealthiest nation on earth. We can afford our public policy goals. The federal budget is $4 trillion. That is plenty of money.
However, our political system has spent about $5.6 trillion on war over the last 18 years and will spend another $2.3 trillion on a tax cut over the next 18 (give or take.) These are choices our political system has made.
Just as going to war in the Middle East and cutting taxes for corporations are choices, so too are these. Our political system has decided not to provide basic needs.
Not because we can’t afford them. Don’t ever believe that bull. Of course we can afford them. Obviously. None of this is new.
This brings me back to the homelessness bill. It is a case of politics framing, and, frankly, distorting–a public policy issue that should be very simple : end homelessness. Anyone that needs housing assistance gets it.
Make housing a right. It is that simple.
It’s scandalous that we would rather blow up homes (and you know, people) in foreign countries than supply them to anyone who needs them in ours. We could probably still afford to do both, but the scandal scandal of all is our war-making. Of course this opinion is rarely taken seriously by “serious” people, which also shows how broken our political premises are.
It’s scandalous because we should feel the moral obligation to provide shelter, but don’t. It’s scandalous because we have the means to do so, but choose not to. It’s scandalous because there are countless sound economic arguments that providing guaranteed housing reduces long-term public spending in other things like healthcare, unemployment, and even criminal justice.
This bill accepts all three terrible premises. Sure, naming something after children makes it easier to build political support for the homeless, but it shows that our definition of the deserving poor continues to narrow and excludes adults suffering with disabilities, addiction, or just poverty. Even children aren’t doing it for a lot of people anymore.
Sure, expanding the definition of homelessness could mean reaching more people who need assistance, but it still accepts that only 1/4 Americans who are even eligible (under any definition) get any. Even if some programs have seen an increase in funding, others haven’t, and most people don’t get help.
And it doesn’t raise the most obvious and scandalous point: that America has no problem guaranteeing housing assistance, if it’s for wealthy people. Every homeowner is eligible for the mortgage interest deduction and the American taxpayer pays around $70 billion a year providing it. We spend $134 billion overall on subsidizing homeownership. Remember that when politicians say we can’t afford to end homelessness.
It is clear that our politics are broken. Our public and civic health have continued to deteriorate as a result. Bills like this one are important in their own right, but its low ambition betrays a lack of moral vision and energy that should shock any American.
But there is hope. There are many candidates, notably New York City progressives Alex Ocasio-Cortez at the Congressional level and Julia Salazar at the State Senate level who are running on housing as a right. Even Senator Kamala Harris is belatedly getting in further on housing more than traditional Dems have (ironically based on similar work by Rep. Joseph Crowley).
Politicians who support housing as a right get what many activists get: The only way to fix our politics is to reject the premises that they rest on. Activists have noticed, but more importantly, everyday people have noticed. It’s not enough to write bills yet, but, for the first time in a long time, it sure feels like that vision and energy might be on the way.
Pete Harrison is the CEO and co-founder of homeBody.