Anyone who has visited a major city during the past decade cannot escape the brutal fact that many thousands of people in this nation of ours spend their nights (and days) in public places. And by “public,” I am not referring to paid campgrounds in our national parks. I’m referring to sidewalks, underpasses, parking lots, and other places that were never intended for human habitation.
Some of these folks simply curl up in a shadowy corner, perhaps hoping that no one will notice and force them away. Others pitch tents in bushy areas along highways, where landscapers rarely visit or, when they do, they tend to look the other way to avoid conflict. Still others find spots in natural areas, where only the occasional hiker might trip over them on a busy weekend.
Too often we find homelessness in exactly those cities where money seems to be most abundant—places like New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, Chicago and Atlanta. If so much money is available right nearby, why has homelessness become such a chronic problem?
Spirited Reasoners would argue that we are witnessing the effects of three coincidental phenomena:
- The rise in the number of veterans returning to the United States with unaddressed (and untreated) mental and emotional illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Court rulings, especially those following the public outcry for human rights after movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that concluded that the forced institutionalization of mentally ill individuals violated their human rights. These rulings resulted in the deinstitutionalization of many people suffering from mental illness.
- Percentage increases in the cost of housing over the past decade that far exceed the corresponding increases in wages and salaries.
In neither of the first two cases did we, as a society, see fit to provide the funding necessary to support the right level of public mental health services to returning veterans or those who have been released from mental institutions. We therefore observe the consequences of our neglect.
In the case of the third cause, we have failed to adjust the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for the past ten years, even though the average rent in the United States for a one-bedroom apartment now exceeds $1,000 per month. A person earning the $7.25 minimum wage for a full-time job, working 8 hours per day, for all 22 working days in an average month, will take home only $1,276 before taxes. How do we expect that person to pay for transportation to work, eat decent meals, buy clothing, and afford health insurance after paying the landlord? Even if this hardworking person can find a roommate willing to cut that rent in half, the cost of housing would still consume far more than the 25% of salary recommended by credit counselors.
We would also argue that our political response to homelessness requires resolving the clash between two conflicting values, both of which we hold as sacred:
- No one has the right to commandeer public space in a manner that ruins it for everybody else; and yet,
- People who are temporarily down and out or who suffer from mental illness should not be treated as criminals.
Why don’t we just throw these people in jail, based on value #1, hoping that if they’re mentally ill they’ll at least get minimum services there?
Because then we’d be paying the full bill for their living expenses, but without the compassion outlined in the solution suggested below. In other words, if we’re going to pay all these bills anyway, why not do it right?
Spirited Reasoners would support policies aimed at treating the causes described above. Thus, our nation’s policymakers should consider the following:
- Provide much greater levels of public mental health intervention for those who need treatment.
- Provide protected spaces for homeless people to live, coupled with a recognition that government officials will be authorized to move people to those new spaces so long as the new accommodations meet acceptable guidelines for public health, safety, and the availability of transportation to work and school. Food, clothing, and health care would be viewed as basic human necessities when evaluating the sufficiency of such accommodations.
- Provide public works programs for those able to work, along with transportation to school for those of school age.
- Increase the minimum wage to a level that will approximate true minimum costs of living.
Would these programs increase our taxes? Of course they would. But we believe the cost will, in the long run, be less than the current damage inflicted on our public spaces.
The alternative is that we can continue as we have, turning our heads and pretending that the responsibility lies with someone else.