The history of homelessness in the US rears its head in the face of COVID-19

Many will not remember this, but before the early 1980s, there weren’t millions of homeless people in the United States. Far too many lived in poverty, but people were not forced to live in the streets. The advent of contemporary homelessness is well documented. It was created by a federal government response to what was, at the time, considered a short-term economic crisis: a recession exacerbated by federal affordable housing cuts.

In 1983, the Reagan administration tasked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with directing a national solution to the rising number of people without homes. FEMA’s response was to do what FEMA has always done in an emergency: create thousands of short-term, temporary shelters across the country. This approach not only failed to address the cause of homelessness but also pathologized homelessness as an individual shortcoming. It became increasingly apparent that the phenomenon of homelessness was not tied to market fluctuation but was predicated on massive, system-wide federal cuts to affordable housing programs at both the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The federal government doubled down on hiding the structural cause of the crisis and in 1987 started funding what thirty-three years later we know today as “Homeless Programs.”

Homelessness quickly grew to epidemic proportions and was cemented into the American landscape. In 1987, the Reagan administration passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, taking FEMA’s crisis-based emergency response out of the equation and transferring authority over homelessness administration to HUD. With this handoff, HUD ironically became the dominant funding source for local communities to ostensibly address the homelessness created by HUD cuts in the first place. However, since HUD was originally gutted in 1980, the agency has not restored nearly enough funding to make even a dent in our nation’s housing crisis. As recently as a few months ago, Ben Carson reiterated his firm belief in homelessness as a local issue, devolving responsibility to cities and states, much like Trump’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Since HUD took over, there have been Continuum of Care Plans, Five-year Plans, Ten-year Plans, Chronic Homeless Plans, HUD-VASH Initiatives, and an unfunded but highly touted Housing First Program. None of these programs created any tangible exits from homelessness. The only impactful legislation has been the thousands of local and state anti-homelessness laws, which have only served to criminalize the existence of poor and unhoused people. None of HUD’s plans were designed to address the root of the problem, and so logically the problem has remained pervasive. In 1998, sixteen years after the federal government allocated emergency funding for shelters through FEMA, the federal government passed the ‘Contract With America’ welfare reform act. In addition to a myriad of other horrible “reforms,” this act stipulated that the federal government was no longer responsible for ensuring housing for a majority of Americans. It’s no wonder that homelessness remains as much a crisis for those experiencing it today as it was in 1983. But now, there are so many more of us.

From inhumane to deadly

To address this abject systemic failure, HUD redefined those counted as being homeless in 2008 to reduce the official number by discounting many unhoused families and youth previously reported. That same year, HUD implemented a new reporting system, dispatching local volunteers to do a headcount of people in the streets bi-annually on January 25th. This date guarantees that most people will be tucked away, unseen, hiding from the bitter cold. These were attempts to show positive results while hiding the true realities and shirking their responsibility in order to assure the general public that (1) they care and (2) they are responsive. Homelessness has been institutionalized in our society to the point that the priority is to configure a new formula that tweaks the numbers and gives the impression of fewer people who are unhoused each year. This illusion has become more important than the reality. To that end, HUD prioritizes chronically homeless single adults over families because they can be more easily and economically shoved into shelter programs and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels – essentially made to disappear – with a bigger bang for the buck.

The driving force behind the federal response to homelessness has long been “Quality of Life,” not for those without a home, but for the businesses and condo developers that do not want to see them. With each administration, this system twists its priority toward different constituents, but without fail, it becomes increasingly draconian and punitive toward poor people. Under various HUD initiatives such as HOPE 6 and Choice Neighborhoods, thousands of affordable housing units have been sold or demolished, while HUD continues to aggressively limit people’s eligibility to apply for the units that remain. Waiting lists for affordable housing have grown so ridiculously long that people are no longer offered even a chance to get on them.

It is against this backdrop that we are now asking: How have we gotten to the point that institutionalized community care has failed so monumentally? Why are those without housing unable to adhere – even in part – to the CDC’s guidelines on keeping healthy and safe from COVID-19? The nation’s homeless programs were never meant to provide an appropriate, life-preserving, healthy environment. They were designed to get people out of sight and therefore out of mind. Rebuilding permanent healthy homes for families and individuals has never been the priority. It wasn’t the priority before the outbreak and it isn’t now. Within this context, we recognize poverty and homelessness truly as a matter of life and death.

Under these circumstances, with mandates to shelter in place and “just stay home,” the homeless programs created prior to the coronavirus outbreak are showing themselves for what they are. This system was not created to treat people as human beings. This system was created to treat the presence of poor people as a problem. As long as there is a “bang for buck” mentality toward people on the streets, people will be pushed into seriously inhumane living conditions because the priority is to make them disappear.

For so long, we have operated under the manufactured fallacy that guaranteed housing for all people is unaffordable. Meanwhile, homeowners and corporations claim the two largest tax write-offs the IRS doles out $140 billion in subsidies every year for homeowners alone. These recipients aren’t placed on waiting lists. They don’t face an intake process and their entitlements aren’t parsed out. They are confident in their right to a housing subsidy and a tax write off. You qualify, you get it. Yet, the right to a home is a matter of charity and assigning fault, beyond the scope of government concern, as if it were poor people in Congress who voted to cut the housing budgets, created homelessness, and then failed to address it. The pandemic is exposing neoliberal governance’s deadliness. If healthcare, housing, education, and a living income were a right for all, not just one segment of society, it would be easy to stay home, keep each other safe, and control the spread of the virus through comprehensive healthcare and testing. We must learn from this crisis and make sure that the generations that follow don’t wind up in this same boat. As it stands, negligence is killing people.

We must learn from history to make it through the pandemic and, most importantly, to ensure we never go back to what existed before. Just a mere month and a half into the retreat indoors, the system is trying to function as it always has. We’ve seen coordinated intakes, screenings, and the prioritization of who is worthy of an emergency response to COVID-19 and who is not. This institutionalized, mechanized, dehumanizing process of pitting worthy against unworthy and priority populations against non-priority has been applied with gross negligence at all levels. It isn’t a matter of life and death only for those without a home, or for the social service staff members, but for all of us.

All people deserve dignity

There are certain universal human needs that any governing structure – from local to federal – is responsible for. Among these are housing, healthcare, education, public parks, clean water, and clean air – the things that make life beautiful. These needs touch every single living being and as such, are non-negotiable. They do not belong on the open market. Whether it’s housing or clean air, there is a threshold for humanity that is so important that it’s beyond the reach of profit. The right to a house should not be predicated on the money in one’s pocket and the government’s role must be to secure this right. This experience has to be used to do things differently. Of course, so much money is poured into maintaining the system we have been living under, in all its iterations, since 1983. If history has taught us anything, it’s that disaster capitalism will ensure the status quo will be worse in the future for those who already struggled to survive before the pandemic.

We need to stop asking for change and start getting absolutely righteous about the fact that the government should work for all of us. Demand that homelessness must be addressed with housing and ended once and for all. Demand that lack of access to healthcare must be addressed with a universal approach. In order to achieve that, the question isn’t, “What’s the answer?” but is, £What role does the government play in addressing community-wide needs?” Currently, the government is relying on a community-wide response to protect each other: stay at home, and that will save us. But the government has actively worked to dismantle community structures that would allow us to do just that. We’re not set up that way.

We can’t go back to the old system, and we can’t beg for systemic change. We are strong enough to do more than beg. We must be entitled enough to demand that power and resources be returned to the hands of our communities. We must act in order to see that our government works for all of us. After decades of mismanagement and basic human rights violations, we can no longer abide by this system, as made evident by this crisis. In the interest of future generations, we must ensure that we learn from this crisis and not allow anyone among us to be treated as less than human, not undeserving of health, housing, food, education and a liveable income. If we allow ourselves to be treated as anything less than human, we will all suffer the consequences. My dignity is degraded as long as another’s is. There is no change without demand, and there is no demand without action.

What stands out during this time is the incredible mutual aid work happening at the local level. This work is not done in conjunction at a national level or funded as a five-year plan by HUD. Radicals, community groups, artists, bartenders, faith groups – people – are demonstrating their deep empathy and visceral understanding that the health of our communities is mutual and intertwined. That’s not an anomaly. Everyday people have responded to this crisis by caring for their brothers and sisters. They are filling a serious void that has been created by the lack of institutions that are truly for the people. Having a governance that encompasses this mindset in its decision making, funding allocations, etc. is not the antithesis of who we are as people. Government should reflect who we are as people. We must continue to come together and ask ourselves what the priorities should be, not what we are willing to merely accept. We need the ability to implement these priorities and have our voices heard. People must be treated as worthwhile and with dignity. That is what is required, not asked. This principle of humanity is what we are seeing every day from our communities as we respond to this crisis.

Not only should we demand a more comprehensive response to this crisis in particular, but also that the innate beauty of every person be reflected in their government. That is not asking for too much.

Molly Beckhardt is from Brooklyn, New York, where she has worked as an oyster shucker, a grant writer, and a legal proofreader. She studied labour relations and is always looking for ways to make the world a little bit better. WRAP is a Bay Area based homeless advocacy group created to expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities.

Courtesy of Street Spirit /







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