You are in the midst of handing your political opponents a massive issue that threatens your ability to win elections. As is frequently the case, you are torn between your desire to do the right thing and what resonates with voters.
The issue is homelessness.
For the last 40 years or so we, as a society, have failed to confront homelessness despite knowing how to solve it. We know this solution because two University of Washington professors, Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern, have written a seminal book called Homelessness is a Housing Problem, which tackles the issue head on.
Here are some of their findings:
- Homelessness exists more in thriving cities with good economies than it does in struggling ones.
- Homelessness is worse in New York City than it is in say, Houston, despite the billions spent in New York to house, shelter and feed homeless people.
- Homeless people do not migrate to warm weather climates or cities with better welfare services. They stay put.
But Colburn and Aldern’s most important finding, and maybe the most obvious, is the one we will be talking about today.
The only true reason people are homeless is because they don’t have a home. And they don’t have a home because we, as a society, have not built enough affordable housing.
But why haven’t we built enough housing?
This is where the answer gets a little more complicated. We haven’t built enough housing because we, the voters, have made it too difficult to build that housing.
You might know the author and activist Bill McKibben for his writing on climate change. His first book – The End of Nature – is still the most provocative and scary book on the subject. But his latest book – The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon – answers the housing question perfectly.
McKibben describes how, in his hometown of Lexington, MA, his liberal neighbors always supported the notion of affordable housing but when it came to actually building these new homes, these same neighbors voted no. This hypocrisy is due to the fact that affordable housing and the people who live in it alter the character of towns. And these well-to-do middle class white people really like their quaint New England village layout with its single-family zoning, small downtown shops and neat front lawns.
To McKibben, this view is racist in the extreme. It is white people wanting to keep people of color out of their neighborhood because it would hurt the property value of their home. This mindset is the reason we have not built affordable housing and it has been going on for decades.
It is a mindset that, racist or not, exists because many of us think, and therefore treat, the homeless as criminals. We see them not as fellow humans but as mentally ill drug addicts who threaten our safety.
In Burlington, VT, the newly renovated public park behind City Hall has become a gathering spot for the people we don’t like. A spot on the bike path in my town of Montpelier is the same. We turn our noses up at them, these people who gather around a make-shift fire just to keep warm.
Of course it is true that homeless people suffer from drug addiction and mental illness. But when they act out, our immediate reaction is to call 911 and hand the issue over to the police.
Sarah George, the chief prosecutor in Chittenden county, says calling 911 is exactly the wrong thing to do. George says police officers are ill-equipped to help people in crisis. In a recent interview, she told me that people without homes should not go to jail. They should go home. And once they are home, they need therapy, a social worker, health care, and good food.
Slowly, local governments are addressing the issue. Burlington has erected a cluster of pods for housing, along with the services necessary for dignity of life. Montpelier has built more than 100 units of housing in the past two years.
But as Colburn and Aldern point out, it is not nearly enough.
This is a societal issue, not a police issue. And by societal, I mean politics.
Which brings me back to you, Democrats. For too long, you have talked a good game on the homeless issue. But your unwillingness to actually solve the problem has become a massive political threat.
The public now equates homelessness with criminality, disorder and societal breakdown. When people without homes take over City Hall Park in Burlington, voters get scared and take it out on the politicians who have not solved the problem.
And you, Democrats, know exactly why you haven’t solved the problem. Because solving it takes billions, the construction of thousands of new apartments and homes in neighborhoods where middle-class white people don’t want them. Democrats fear making these people angry because these people vote and give money to campaigns. Homeless people don’t.
That is the political trap for Democrats, who must persuade voters that solving homelessness is in everyone’s best interest. That it is not just the moral and right thing to do, but that it is good for the economy, drives down health care costs and makes for a more secure, cohesive community.
A great new article in The Atlantic lays out this failure and the political threat in stark terms. The writer – Jerusalem Demsas – says:
“… policy makers’ failure to respond to the crisis has transformed what could have been an opportunity for reducing homelessness into yet another cycle of support for criminalizing it.’’
Vermont is attacking the problem aggressively. Several years ago, a Republican governor and Democratic legislature passed a housing bond that generated millions for new housing. We are using millions in federal dollars to attack the problem. We are ending the criminalization of people on the street. We are changing the vocabulary around living without a home and the other challenges that go with it.
But it is hard. And complicated. And expensive.
And in the end, the people who care most about solving homelessness are the ones who will be blamed.
“This is what policy failure looks like,’’ Demsas writes. “At some point, someone’s going to have to own it.’’
And while it is the voters who should take responsibility for our unwillingness to support new housing, it is the Democrats who will take the blame.
The author is a Democrat, communications consultant, former State House lobbyist and daily newspaper reporter, and Montpelier resident. Republished from his blog, Conflict of Interest.