Ellis: Homeless issue spells danger for Democrats

Dear Democrats:

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.  

Kevin Ellis

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:

  1. Homelessness exists more in thriving cities with good economies than it does in struggling ones. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Categories: Commentary

22 replies »

  1. A huge chunk of the problem here(not everywhere) is the large portion of housing owned by out of staters.
    In our township we are slightly over 50% non resident owned.
    This is creating burdens for our town paying its bills and it’s vastly distorting housing prices.
    We’ve been trying to find a home for a family member and many properties that are ideal are simply locked up Unoccupied.

  2. “We turn our noses up at them, these people who gather around a make-shift fire just to keep warm. ” – No sir, you do that, those of us with compassion who have been down on our luck don’t.

    All of this in my opinion is ignorance of the real problem, the problem that the democrats (and a lot of republicans) refuse to acknowledge, the elephant in the room so to speak.

    The real problem is government. If I go buy a house that costs $280,000 at 6.5% interest the payment is about $1769 a month (no downpayment, and not including PMI – yet another tax IMO), the taxes on it will likely be around $488 a month (higher in some areas and lower in a few). That’s 27% more expensive because of the government. Think about how many people can’t afford a house because of the taxes? I’m not saying that there aren’t good services that those taxes provide (that’s a whole other conversation – hint those have all gone downhill too), I’m saying that to increase the cost of a house by nearly 1/3rd is a lot, and it takes the ability to purchase a home away from a buyer. In this case about $80,000 worth of home at 6.5% interest on a 30 year mortgage. If taxes weren’t a factor that person could purchase a $360,000 home for the same amount per month. If I were to include taxes and could only afford $1700 a month then we are talking more like a $200,000 home. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the money you are using to pay for that home has already been taxed by about another 1/3rd.

    Trying to solve this by employing more government is the equivalant of trying to put out a gas fire by throwing more gasoline on it.

    Tax is theft and the government has their hand in your pocket.

  3. Perhaps the real problem is the continuing peculiar desire of our liberal/socialist neighbors to enslave and indenture segments of society with government assistance, handouts, entitlements, housing, food and soon to be a “guaranteed income”.
    Promoting a welfare state and funding same has been a liberal demand for over 50 years. Permanent subservience to government for all of ones basic needs is indeed a cruel basic form of slavery, one that has over time created it’s own government administered industrial scale bureaucracy- and a totalitarian bureaucracy at that.
    Just as the same progressive thinkers rail against the ‘systemic racism’ allegedly wide-spread in Vermont, these liberals demand a welfare state that requires complete allegiance to the state. We forget that the ‘state’ is the problem, not the solution. We’ve spent trillions of dollars in the last half century to accomplish nothing positive for the homeless, just further enslaved millions into the “system”.

  4. I’d say I disagree about a number of points made in this article. I think the number one cause of homelessness is mental health issues and/or substance abuse. Sure building more affordable housing is needed but there’s a fair number of homeless people that aren’t going to be able to live in those apartments without receiving the help they need first in order to not present a safety concern.

    I also know for sure that homeless people do migrate to places with better weather or where they will obtain better benefits. No one moves to VT for the weather if they’re homeless but they definitely do for the benefits.

    Not sure where “200 units” of housing was built by Montpelier in the past 2 years as you stated- most definitely NOT in Montpelier. Did you mean by state government somewhere in the state? In actuality, Montpelierites fight tooth and nail against any attempt to build new homes or apartments where they live- the ultimate in NIMBY politics.

    And yes, we have an excessive number of homes used for AirBnB rentals, ski condos, summer homes etc. There are hundreds of homes just in my community alone that are vacant at least half the year. What is the solution though? At present, property rights is paramount. I get it but then we have to accept that wealth rules and wealthy people will choose to purchase property they don’t live in year round. And then we end up with our current situation where even employed people can’t obtain housing.

  5. Ahh……The People’s Republic’s # 1 Know-It-All toots his woke toodle once again. Maybe he’d like to donate some of the money he (still) earns as a “consultant” to the cause. Or, even lobby for the donation of some Montpelier area meadows for a housing site.

    • @ Anonymous

      Oooo no, can’t build on any of those open meadows in Montpelier! The people who live near there walk their dogs on those properties and will just about kill anyone who ever voices a plan to build housing there!

  6. One “of course, but” sentence in a long essay discussing the connection to the opioid crisis? Opioid deaths are at an all time high and growing exponentially. What about the upheaval of society during the pandemic?

    Hard to take his solutions to a problem seriously when he doesn’t address the problem head on.

  7. As the US government has proven statistically over half a century that, in fact, homeless people are homeless because of MENTAL HEALTH illnesses and DRUG addiction.

    Yeah, yeah, “affordable” housing for those who wish to subsist on socialist programs set in place by democrats, but such protocols do not a healthy society make — not to even make mention of the impoverished multimillions more being allowed in through our “open borders” policy which violates federal laws. Your “affordable housing” will NEVER cease to end. But in the end, isn’t that what democrats truly want? A society of undereducated masses in tract-style housing reliant upon government for every necessity?

    The fact is is that democrats aren’t doing a damn thing about these GENUINE underlying causes of this plague and instead attempting to alleviate those to some degree. Instead, democrats have habitually claimed that taking seriously mentally ill people who pose a threat to others off the streets into mandatory treatment/hospitals undermines their “civil rights”, and that dangerous & deadly drugs all really ought to be simply legalized or at least decriminalized and mainstreamed. Let’s begin with injection sites — coming to a town near yours thanks to these democrat’s twisted ideologies on what creates a healthful, “righteous” society.

    I mean, one need only look at the greater good alcoholism and legalization of Marijuana (as in states such as Colorado) has done for our culture? The more inebriated and incapacitated the better – for a party who wishes to usher in socialism and a one-party totalitarian system of government.

    In a FREE MARKET society – the FREE MARKET dictates the housing market – NOT the government. The democrats are largely destroying what Vermont was for over 200 years, but yet they know better. Yeah, sure.

    So did Maduro.

  8. As much as liberals in Vermont obsess about diversity, equity, white guilt etc, our land-use laws have always been about maintaining a high level of gentrification and keeping Vermont as a theme park for the rich. The rare exception is allowing the co-oping of trailer parks as mobile homes have always been the mainstay of affordable, owner-occupied dwellings here. The new legislative session is about to start and the newly seated legislature is ready to again PRETEND that they will address the reasons that it is economically impractical to build affordable, owner-occupied dwellings in Vermont. One can argue about the aesthetic virtues or detriments of Act 250, Vermont’s statewide zoning law that was the first knife in the back of affordable homeownership. Then came the septic revisions that often necessitated $20,000 pumped mound systems that are just so attractive in the front yard. More recently, fire safety officials got involved in mandating excessively-large windows, wide driveways, fire ponds, and/or sprinkler systems in single-family homes if they happen to be “too far from the firehouse”. All due respect to fire safety professionals, but I dont ever remember voting for any of them. Now we have “stormwater” mandates adding to the price of a house. Remember when we used to just call it “rain”? On the federal level, we have an administration and a political party that regards a wide-open border policy a humanitarian obligation, and does not have the mental acuity to realize that letting in hundreds of thousands of indigent migrants will have any contrary effect on a chronic nationwide shortage of affordable housing. Other than the fundamental market laws of supply and demand, excessive government bureaucracy has always been primarily responsible for the high cost of housing in Vermont.
    Contrary to the statement by the author, homeless people absolutely do migrate to places with better welfare services. People who harbor low levels of personal responsibility will definitely relocate to places where there is a very low expectation for it. Vermont government worships and rewards victimhood. And very few voters will be blaming the democrats/progressives for this problem…we keep voting for them no matter what…because it makes us “feel good about ourselves”…
    In general, it is the philosophies of the Left that are ruining Vermont’s work ethic, sense of personal responsibility and are killing the middle class with taxes.. The left destroys everything it touches…liberalism is a mental disorder.

  9. Only a brain-dead leftist Democrat could blame “middle class white people,” for not wanting to live in the midst of a huge mental illness problem created by Democrat policies, a huge drug problem created by Democrat policies, a huge violent crime problem created by Democrat policies, a huge illegal immigration problem created by Democrat policies, a huge wage problem created by Democrat policies, a huge property tax problem created by Democrat policies… need I go on? These homeless people don’t have homes because Democrats enable and encourage addled dysfunction and economic oppression out of a naive belief in communist utopianism, and no sensible person, regardless of race or economic status wants to live anywhere near the entirely predictable dystopian results.

  10. And this author is a liberal consultant for more liberal destruction of Vermont. Imagine building pods so these eyesore humans won’t be seen on the street. The state paying to put people into hotels that they buy with taxpayer money. All of the wasted money could have reduced the homeless population by investing in mental health facilities. The liberals mindset thinks that these people should be free to sleep and defecate in the street, congregate and take illegal drugs and to create more crime to buy those drugs. But no, Mr. Ellis can’t see the real cause of homelessness and dependency is the government policies passed by liberal democrats and progressives. To recognize the problems he only needs to find a mirror, he and those in his cult are the problem and the cause of Vermont’s slide into hell. Liberalism is a form of mental disorder. They create the problems they can’t and don’t want to fix.

  11. I still believe that Vermont should only help their own if you have not lived in Vermont for at least one year, NO benefits, let the state you come from support you, not Vermont! That should take care of half the problem! Oh the legislature in Apeil formed one of their special committees to solve the homeless / motel problem, two years have gone by an as usual nothing 👍👍

  12. I don’t agree with the author’s premise regarding availability of affordable housing. I worked closely with a very large homeless community in another state. Picture the worst that you’ve seen on CNN or Fox and I was in the middle of something like that for over a year. The vast number of long term chronically homeless in that situation because of a pattern of poor life choices (drugs and alcohol) and untreated mental illness. The current trend of not jailing people for drug and minor property crimes has eliminated a major consequence that compelled some to pursue treatment. All of these factors have led to this population in our country who have been abandoned by their families and communities. You can put them under a roof but they won’t stop their self medication and anti-social behaviors. The lifestyle they have adopted is incompatible with what it takes to be a responsible tenant or homeowner. If you build it, they will trash it. If housing comes with rules they will break them. It’s time to start compelling treatment.

    • Exactly. One only has to look at the issues that have arisen in places where motels are being used to house the homeless to get a sense of the problems. The numbers of “incidents “ requiring emergency services is staggering. I know I sure wouldn’t want to live in an apartment building that housed people who were engaging in the anti social behaviours displayed at these motels. The mental health issues and substance abuse has to be dealt with first in a secure setting devoted to this before most of these people can successfully be housed in society. The leftists don’t want to hear this but it’s what it is.

  13. ” “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.” ”

    So glad to see that chicken little…I mean Bill McKibben has it all figured out, but did I miss the article about him donating his wealth to build some public assistance tenements in HIS neighborhood??? Please someone please forward me the link to that article, I mean because, he must have done that, right???

  14. However, not all homeless people suffer from “mental illness”, nor from drug addiction. Confusion, anxiety may be found amongst any group of people.
    I’ve been homeless twice and never took to street drugs. Although caffeine addiction returned, as I was unable to get proper diet and exercise regimen as required to deal with my disability. This is very damaging to my body, but it helped to keep going as I wasn’t accessing required diet.
    Decades before I ever thought that I’d be homeless I ran outreaches to people in the street and in shelters. Many simply lacked income enough to afford housing, despite having fulltime jobs.

    • @ Scott

      There are indeed people that are homeless but aren’t substance abusers or significantly mentally ill; this group is relatively small and given access to affordable housing, easily helped if we put our minds to it. That still does leave the bulk of the homeless population which tends to be mentally I’ll and/or substance abusers. The process to help this group needs to be significantly different than what is needed for people who just lack affordable housing.

  15. Since FDR, the platform of Democrats was always social programs. The blue-dog Democrats (Trump was one) were more pragmatic and far less ignorant. JFK was not perfect, but he was smarter than most and that is why they killed him. Unfortunately, the DNC and the RNC are high caliber syndicates used by even higher criminal syndicates. FTX is a modern example of how their system really works. Every time a Democrat or Republican starts pulling the old heart strings, they are actually pulling dollars out of your wallet to fund their syndicates. Yes, billions upon billions sent to Ukraine and open borders to funnel drugs and humans for sale. Both situations are connected and part and parcel of the same plan. Spare me the excuses about homelessness in Vermont and across the United States. It was created on purpose to destroy humanity and the country. Death by a thousand well planned and executed cuts.

  16. IMO this author is incorrect. Has he never heard of the homelessness industrial complex? State and national politicians (almost entirely democrats) have no real intentions of ending homelessness. Their policies are proof of that. They actually work to increase and perpetuate homelessness as it increases their justification for existence and also their power. And as of recently theyve been very successful in doing so thus the massive increase in those considered to be homeless. Democrats have incentivized homelessness to its full extent. They have opened the border to people with no homes or jobs, they have legalized drugs (in some cases they distribute paraphernalia), legalized prostitution, all but eliminated incarceration for folks who may need to hit rock bottom before they turn their life around, created mass inflation by unnecessary spending under the premise of a series or crisis causing the real-estate market to become unaffordable for the average American and a cost of living increase that has created an environment where many can no longer afford their food, heat, rent or mortgage, given the homeless phones, stipends, food, a pod or hotel room. Maybe they should consider giving them a job and require they be sober or in a therapy program of sort. I understand not all homelessness people are addicts, but many, likely most are. The notion that politicians are the solution to a lack of housing is ironic at best when in fact they are the ones responsible for creating and perpetuating the situation. A government big enough to give its people everything they need is also big enough to take everything the people have.

  17. The reality is that if the Democrats appropriate enough public funds to solve homelessness the taxpayers would revolt and start voting Republican so what they need to do is keep promising to solve the homeless problem without going so far as actually solving it.

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