From the Left



What's Left 6: Abolish Homelessness Now

: Ted Rall on

Homelessness is the single most powerful indictment of capitalism, the embodiment of human disposability, the ultimate expression of callous cruelty. In this nation where one out of 16 rental homes is vacant at any given time, one in 600 Americans (550,000) sleeps outside. An additional 3.7 million people, the so-called hidden homeless -- one out of 90 of our sons, our daughters, our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers -- are doubled up in other people's homes because they can't afford their own place.

"You look out the window of the White House and see the ragged and pathetic figures huddled over the steam grates of the Ellipse," former President George H.W. Bush told an audience of insurance agents in 1989, calling homelessness "a national shame. ... It's an affront to the American dream."

He was right, of course. He promised to do better. Yet because not even a president can change an economic system, nothing has improved. Only the Left can fix it.

Of the many ways America fails its citizens, its failure/refusal to ensure everyone has somewhere warm and safe to sleep at night is the starkest reflection of what passes for a social compact: Unless you are lucky enough not to be born into poverty, and lucky enough to avoid succumbing to addiction or some other dysfunction, and lucky enough not to suffer from a debilitating physical or mental illness, and lucky enough to have the charm, education and experience an employer happens to need, and are lucky enough that the economy is not contracting at that time, sooner rather than later you may find yourself sleeping on the street or a subway platform or on a park bench or a steam grate across the street from the White House.

Such a society cannot credibly claim to believe every life is precious. It cannot criticize the way other societies handle their affairs. It has zero moral standing whatsoever.

Chronic homelessness creates problems that impact housed people as well. Responding to calls about public drinking and trespassing diverts police from dealing with serious crimes. Areas with a high homeless population suffer significantly reduced property values, which lowers assessments and hurts municipal budgets. Because homelessness is associated with chronic health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse disorders, homeless people's frequent visits to emergency rooms -- where they account for a third of all patients -- cost hospitals an average of $18,500 per year per person, unreimbursed because they are uninsured. Those expenses are passed on to the rest of us. Mentally ill people are 35 times more likely to commit a crime if they are homeless, compared to the mentally ill domiciled; they are also much more likely to become victims.


Homelessness is expensive. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that one chronically homeless American costs the taxpayer an average of $35,000 per year. That comes to about $20 billion for Americans now living outside.

Catching a glimpse of a miserable attempting to shelter outdoors also has an insidious downward effect on wages and living standards for us, the housed. It reminds you: This could happen to you. Better, then, not to risk asking for a raise.

Cynical Marxists have suggested this may be a feature, rather than a bug, of the current system. Fear of falling is a powerful motivating force.

The answer to the present state of homelessness is "re-housing." We give homes -- not shelters -- to the people who need them. If they don't have money for rent, give them stipends. Most cities keep doing what doesn't work: dangerous shelters that are only open overnight and deny people for drinking, using drugs or acting out.


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