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An Altered State of Homelessness

By Dr. Mark Mussman

Recently, the Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President, released a document entitled The State of Homelessness in America. The document attempts to provide information about the problem of homelessness, as well as, the solutions to reducing homelessness. We have seen many reports on homelessness and poverty throughout the years, but I felt compelled to address this one because it has the potential to cause severe harm throughout the country.

The document begins by stating the causes of homelessness in America. We know that the lack of affordable housing, the lack of livable wages, and the lack of housing protections all contribute greatly to homelessness. Each of these aspects are connected, as if someone has a larger income, they would be able to afford more for housing. The document does say, in the Executive Summary, that incomes do contribute to the inability to afford housing; however, none of the remedies address this cause, and it is not explored in detail in the study. The causes that are given are largely based on stereotypes and aren’t consistent with a nuanced understanding of the issues surrounding poverty.

In this document, good weather becomes a catalyst for homelessness. The idea that people are choosing to live outside is a dangerous fallacy. People do not wish to live outside where they are more likely to experience adverse health outcomes, harassment, and violent crime. To blame the weather on homelessness is like blaming the moon for nighttime. It is far-fetched and disconnected from reality. There was no discussion on how to address the good weather aspect of homelessness either, although we do know that climate change will continue to increase homelessness, and as the earth warms, inhabitable areas of the planet will continue to increase.

The study also blames high quality, hygienic, shelters for homelessness. The belief that people are leaving their safe and affordable homes to live in shelters is faulty at best, dangerous at worst. Some areas have a Right to Shelter law, which means that people who show up, shelter must be provided in a reasonable manner. The document says that these laws raise the quality of the shelters which makes them more desirable; thus, attracting people from their homes into shelters.

On top of good weather and high quality shelters, according to the document, people are experiencing homelessness because it is too desirable to live on the street. The document says that people are leaving their safe and affordable homes to live in the street because municipalities have become too soft on people seeking shelter on the street. In cities, like Cincinnati, we have criminalized homelessness through our anti-solicitation laws, our encampment laws, and now Hamilton County’s anti-homelessness laws. The last law, the countywide law, allows the police to arrest anyone, on private or public land, who they suspect is experiencing homelessness. This law has not decreased homelessness, but it has made it more dangerous for people who are experiencing homelessness, especially for Black people who are more likely to be brutalized by the police, jailed unlawfully, and suffer long-term economic issues related to the criminalization of homelessness.

The document goes to further stigmatize homelessness by relying on an out-of-date stereotype that mental illness causes homelessness. While some people may experience homelessness due to mental illness, it is because they aren’t able to access the proper support to remain housed. We also know that the trauma related to the experience of homelessness stays with an individual for their entire life. The trauma of not knowing where you’ll sleep, and what you may have to give up of yourself to rest, can begin to affect your brain functioning within hours of experiencing homelessness. Other typical tasks, such as eating and bathing, become an emotional and physical challenge, further increasing trauma. Not to mention interactions with institutions who are meant to help, but instead deny you aid, that exacerbate suffering.

Scapegoating drug users as the cause of homelessness, as this document does, is also a fallacy. The causes of drug addiction are depression, isolation, and loneliness. A person who experiences homelessness will experience each of those risk factors, which may contribute to drug use. Drug use itself, however, is rarely a cause of homelessness. Blaming drug abuse and mental illness is a way to detract from the actual causes of homelessness by making it seem like a person has made the wrong choices, or they themselves are immoral.

Addressing these issues is practical, but it is only addressing a symptom of a larger issue.

The document goes on to obfuscate the issue by presenting economic models that may have been ripped out of an introductory economics textbook. The discussion on the graphs amounted to the idea that housing costs too much to produce, so therefore, if we reduce the cost of production, then the rents will drop. This became the tactic to end homelessness: deregulation. The document presents deregulation as the main solution to ending homelessness. They believe that removing building codes, permits, environmental, housing, and wetland protections, combined with reducing energy efficiency and labor requirements, that the cost of housing would decrease so much, that in a city like San Francisco, rent would drop 55%, leading to a drop in homelessness by 54%.

The quality of housing is not considered in this model. Safety is not considered in a model that removes building codes and other protections. In fact, this plan may actually increase homelessness by permitting building in floodplains, reducing labor standards, and reducing the need for inspections and building trades, among other issues.

While it’s hard to stomach the narrative that is created in this document, it is worth taking some time to digest. The final parts of the document make the claim that homelessness is increasing, and any count is not going to be accurate. This was, in my opinion, the only accurate part of the document, but it was only done to say that the Obama Administration failed when it comes to homelessness — it was a jab at President Obama.

Overall, the document relies heavily on stereotypes, in terms of the causes of homelessness, and it only relies on boot-strap approaches to ending homelessness. The major solutions that they propose are dangerous and will increase homelessness. The document says that the police should be supported in their brutality against people experiencing homelessness. The document says that building codes and other community safety considerations (environmental, for instance) are too costly and should be removed. It says that rent control also increases homelessness, but does not address or illustrate how it is a cause of homelessness. Like much of the document, it is based upon beliefs, so that it can put the solution on the individual (who needs drug rehab and mental services) rather than on an economic system that ensures income and wealth inequality.

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