Photo: Gavia Strategies
Timed to coincide with the release of a new book on solutions to homelessness, a panel of the book’s authors and its editor discussed prevalent issues facing the homeless community. Titled “Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can,” the book features chapters on housing first, employing empowerment models and the changing definitions of homelessness.
Held at Emmanuel Church, the panel consisted of Dr. Donald Burnes, Colin Whelley and Kate Whelley McCabe. Dr. Burnes is a co-editor of the book and the executive director of the Burnes Institute on Poverty and Homelessness in Colorado. Whelley and Whelley McCabe are siblings who coauthored a chapter about defending homeless rights: Colin is a data analyst with the Center for Social Innovation and Kate is a lawyer in Vermont.
Joe Finn, president and executive director of the Mass Housing and Shelter Alliance, moderated the panel, and Jeff Olivet, CEO of the Center for Social Innovation, provided opening remarks.
Dr. Burnes covered a lot during the panel and in the follow-up questions afterward. While he noted that homelessness was a bigger problem than acknowledged 20 years ago (in his book “A Nation in Denial: The Truth about Homelessness”), his attitude still developed into a more nuanced understanding of the situation. “We were wrong 20 years ago,” he told the audience. “It’s not an issue of personal failures. It really is an issue of the system.”
One statistic that “floored” him was the disparity in housing subsidies for the rich and poor.
“Housing subsidies for the very poor amount to $46 billion a year. Housing subsidies for the very rich amount to $200 billion a year thanks to a mortgage interest reduction,” said Dr. Burnes. “The bottom 20 percent of housing consumers have an average annual income of $10,100. They spend 87 percent of that income on housing, which leaves them roughly $1,000 a year for everything else.”
This makes it easier to end up homeless and harder to get out of homeless.
The panel also discussed the trend of the criminalization of homelessness.
Cities across the nation, said Colin Whelley, create anti-panhandling laws, ordinances regulating sidewalks and ban sleeping and camping in public parks.
Whelley noted that it’s possible to defend the homeless in court, often using the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment proves useful in defending panhandling as protected speech. The Fourth, which protects against illegal search and seizures, can combat raids and sweeps of the homeless. Finally, the Eighth helps argue that cities are criminalizing the homeless as a class. For example, “if you prevent sleeping and camping in public, but don’t provide shelter, you effectively criminalize a class,” said Whelley.
Navigating the courts presents its own challenges and can be time consuming. Years later, Whelley noted, the legal victory may only benefit the plaintiffs.
Kate Whelley McCabe also noted that the homeless and their advocates don’t have the same centralized legal efforts seen in the Civil Rights movement or the battle for same-sex marriage. “There are a series of successes that we can point to. What I don’t know is if those series of cases are centrally organized in the same way that the NAACP organized their legal actions in the 50s and 60s and the way gay rights activists mobilized,” she told Spare Change News. “It would behoove advocates to have a spearheader.”
These cases are important, she told the audience, because they can help change public perception of homelessness.
In the end, however, the lack of resources and funding will always be a persistent challenge. Even with the diverse approaches detailed in the book.
“Right now, we have a deficit of over 7.5 million units of housing,” Dr. Burnes said. “It would take every state on average, overnight, to create 150,000 units of housing to eliminate the deficit. We’re not close to that. We’re just orders of magnitude short of where we need to be.”
“Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can” is available on Amazon.