After Exposing the Roots of Homelessness – What?
I am deeply impressed by the contributions to this volume and the debates that have led up to it, and happy that my little essay more than 25 years ago fed into them. But at the same time I am saddened by it is still timely.
It is now clear that we know enough about homelessness and its causes and effects to understand how abhorrent it is within an affluent society, and further that we know enough to be aware of what is needed to end it, what can and should be done. I write “’we’ know enough;” at least no one seriously argues today that homelessness is inevitable as a natural and healthy phenomenon needed to keep society going, to provide an incentive for those too lazy or too stupid to get to work and take care of themselves.
So why do we still have homelessness in countries like the United States today? On the very day I write this, in today’s New York Times is a story headlined “Long Nights with Little Sleep for Families Seeking Shelter; it gives the number of persons in shelters as 59,373, a record. This is on the front page one of the most widely read and respected newspapers in the country. It isn’t knowledge that is lacking that is preventing us from solving the problem . If there are still attempts to “neutralize” it, in the sense of the discussion here, it is not out of ignorance.
Why so little action, then? The picture that emerges from the articles in this book help us explain why. I think the argument can be summarized as follows.
To begin with, it costs money to remedy homelessness, and requires significant governmental regulation to solve it, and that in a variety of linked fields: housing production, management, location, urban planning and development, economic development, education, health care, criminal justice, media coverage, racial and ethnic discrimination, immigration – the detailed evidence is at hand. Admitting this means, at the very least, raising the money for the needed remedies, even just the shelter responses that are so obviously inadequate even in our greatest cities. That means taxation, and necessarily progressive taxation; when the 1% own more wealth than all the bottom 50% together, there are powerful class issues involved from the beginning. The results are apparent in the prevalence of the “lower taxes” slogan in current political campaigns. Claims for equity in taxation get neutralized too.
But look at the further implications of acting on what know about homelessness, pursing its implications in public policy formation. The money and resources that are needed to provide adequate housing for all must either come today – we live in a capitalist society – from the private profit-motivated sector, or from government. In the private sector that means raising wages and incomes substantially at the bottom and the middle; and in the government sector, raising taxes at the top. Clearly controversial. Power for either event does not lie with those pushing to solve homelessness.
But take critical analysis further. The reason redistribution of money and resources from the rich to the poorer is needed to provide decent housing for all is that housing is distributed through the market, based on ability to pay, i.e.based on wealth and incomes. That’s not inevitable, even within a capitalist system. Some housing could also be distributed by need, with public provision outside the market where the market will not provide it for lack of profit potential. Public housing, housing subsidies, income subsidies, housing allowances, anti -speculation taxes, rent controls, community land trusts, inclusionary housing requirements, are all available tools. We know what can and should be done. Lack of knowledge or tools is not the problem; the problem is implementing our knowledge..
But taking an even further look at the implications of that conclusion: why does it only apply, mutatis mutandis, to homelessness issues – resources need to be redistributed, the role of the market constrained?? Indeed, could the conclusions really in any case only be limited to homelessness, or to housing policy generally, even if we wanted to narrow it that way? Wouldn’t it, if we were being logical, apply to all of the linked areas mentioned above, from urban development to health care to racial discrimination, not only to poverty but to all issues of social justice and of equality?
And then it becomes hard not to examine the rationale for capitalism itself, and to ask whether or not alternatives ought to be considered. Admittedly socialism in its classic conceptualized form is hardly on the agenda, today, although Bernie Saunders may have made the word’s use a little more acceptable in polite society. If two key hallmarks of movement in that direction already accepted and in place, might be thought of, such as free public education, public police and fire protection services, public roads and transportation, parks, for instance, might we not consider reexamining the appropriate role the market vis-à-vis democratic governmental provision and regulation in the housing sector? Couldn’t we use the levels of public funding and public regulation as indications of where are compared to where we want to be on each, and keep their connection with broader economic, social, physical, and above all power, relationships very much on the table as well?
We are already, in the United States, at national, and at some state and local, into hard debates about the appropriate roles of the private sector and government, and inching towards a variety of compromises. Think of health care, going from subsidy and facilitation towards a public option, uncomfortably aware that other countries have much more satisfactory nation health systems. We have means-tested programs of public welfare assistance, some including direct public provision, others subsidizing private or providing direct cash allowances to be used in the market. Public health agencies deal with some health issues – the Zika virus is right now a clear public concern – but not o. We have unemployment benefits, economic development programs subsidizing private “jo creators,” but little direct public job creation. All of these programs deal with issues related to each of the others, but the campaigns for improvement in each are separate, and the political parties shy aware from any broad calls to link them in a reassessment of the roles of the involved private and public institutions and levels of government. Yet that is what all the widely available evidence point us to as needed.
Perhaps putting an analysis such as is provoked by the above summary under the rubric of a formal Right to Housing, such as is suggested in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, might likewise help us help us broaden and deepen the approach we take to the problem of homelessness, its causes and solutions. Putting the situation in the global context in the national discourse might by itself be illuminating.
What needs to be done, urgently today and gradually but ultimately tomorrow , is really pretty clear. Perhaps Trump also understands the logic of this , and that explains why he so staunchly opposes dealing seriously with and really funding any social programs dealing with an issue such as homelessness in his budget – if you start helping one set of “losers,” you’re going to have to start helping all of them, and where would that lead us….
 Marcuse, Peter. 1987. “Why Are They Homeless,” The Nation, April 4, vol. 244, No. 13. Reprinted in Eitzen, D. Stanley, ed., Social Problems, Allyn & Bacon, and in Kennedy, Williams, ed., Writing in the Disciplines, Prentice Hall.
 Nakita Stewart,“Long Nights with Little Sleep For Families Seeking Shelter,” The New York Times , August 29, 2016, p.1.
 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, available at http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html, and Edgar, Bill; Doherty, Joe; Meert, Henk (2002). Access to housing: homelessness and vulnerability in Europe. The Policy Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-86134-482-3.
 A further discussion of the cause and some alternate approaches to “the housing problem ” may be found in David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defense of Housing: the Politics of Crisis, 2016, Verso, London, , and in various entries in my blog, Urbandpolitical, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.
Peter Marcuse July 20, 2018