Homelessness is proof of our failed economic system
The agreement by President Biden to significantly cut federal spending—part of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s price for agreeing to raise the federal debt ceiling—comes when there is already a bipartisan assault on the homeless and on housing-insecure people in cities and states across the country. These anti-homeless laws are antithetical to Catholic social teaching (and Christian ethics more broadly) because they try to hide preventable social evils and they codify the subordination of poor people that the Gospel seeks to overturn.
Despite repeatedly being struck down by the courts, anti-homeless laws remain a popular mechanism to “disappear” homeless people by restricting their movement, rest, freedom of association and even their belongings. The National Homelessness Law Center tracked these laws in 187 cities from 2006 to 2019 and found increases in citywide bans on camping (92 percent), “sitting or lying down in public” (78 percent), loitering (103 percent), and living in vehicles (213 percent). These bans are proliferating even as the nation’s housing crisis worsens for all renters. Last June, for example, rent increased at its fastest monthly rate since 1986. And as of 2021, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there were only 33 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households.
Despite repeatedly being struck down by the courts, these laws remain a popular mechanism to “disappear” homeless people by restricting their movement, rest and even their belongings.
Rather than closing this gap, legislatures in red and blue states alike are following the lead of municipal governments in “solving” homelessness by criminalizing homeless people. According to a 2021 supplement to the N.H.L.C.’s report on cities, 48 states have some statewide restrictions on behaviors that directly affect homeless people. Restrictions on camping or sleeping in public seem to be most popular, even though the Supreme Court has upheld the ruling of a lower court that it is cruel and unusual punishment for police to issue fines to homeless people for sleeping in public if the need for shelter beds exceeds the available stock.
Homelessness is visible proof of the failures of our economic system. And the spread of anti-homeless laws should provoke solidarity among all working-class people, many of whom are now living on the edge of economic security. Anti-homeless laws are part of a cruel sleight of hand in which politicians only appear to do something, anything, to solve our problems.
One example of this dynamic at work is the nation’s infrastructure. In a society oriented to serving the interests of everyday people, “infrastructure” would constitute the foundational elements of the common good: not only roads and bridges, but also public transportation, waste management and the like. In reality, American infrastructure is too underdeveloped and starved of resources to support public life even in our wealthiest cities. And Americans pay stealth taxes to private industry to compensate for this government failure. For instance, because few public toilets exist (there are only eight per 100,000 people in the United States, compared with 15 in the United Kingdom and 56 in Iceland), we are often forced to pay tolls in the form of unwanted purchases from private businesses to use their restrooms. I have bought many terrible cups of coffee because of this.
In reality, American infrastructure is too underdeveloped and starved of resources to support public life even in our wealthiest cities.
Those who do not have the funds to pay user fees or stealth taxes feel those harms most acutely through repeated arrests, fines and preventable illnesses. Homeless people trespassing in private businesses or defecating in public is not a sign that there is something wrong with homeless people, but that there is something universally harmful about private industry mediating nearly all of public life.
Unfortunately for all of us, but most of all for the homeless and other vulnerable people, public, noncommercial space is disappearing from the American landscape. Private development claims a football field’s worth of natural land in the American West every two and a half minutes. Bustling public squares are but a distant memory in many parts of the United States. But the real-world practice of democracy requires a physical landscape. At a time of heightened public anxiety over the erosion of democratic norms, the creation and restoration of publicly controlled spaces, truly open to all, must be a priority.
Most anti-homeless laws are, either in fact or in practice, status crimes. That is, legality is not determined by what the action is, but by who is performing it. Other status crimes have to do with regulating age-restricted behaviors such as drinking and smoking. But in the case of anti-homeless laws, the disqualifying condition is simple human need, brought on by poverty or mental illness. Many activities become restricted by the fact that a person is—or simply appears to be—homeless.
Most anti-homeless laws are, either in fact or in practice, status crimes. That is, legality is not determined by what the action is, but by who is performing it.
Panhandling, for example, is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, but it is nevertheless a common target for legal restriction and police harassment. And poverty status is the only real difference between a Salvation Army Santa Claus and a man begging for money to feed himself. Treating them differently has little to do with distributing justice and everything to do with enforcing the subordination of extremely poor people.
Announcing new efforts to criminalize homeless people sleeping in trains, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said, “The system is not made to be housing. It’s made to be transportation, and we have to return back to that basic philosophy.”
Unfortunately for huge swaths of New Yorkers, homeless or otherwise, most of the city does not appear to be made for poor and working-class people’s housing either. Mr. Adams went on to liken homelessness to a “cancerous sore” in the city. That’s the thing about cancers: They are existential threats, deformations of good things to be excised.
For the last 40 years, the great policy solutions to human need have been abandonment and criminalization. And now we are told that in order to fund the government for the next fiscal year, we must accept steep cuts to, among other things, housing and homelessness prevention programs. In a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia L. Fudge noted that the cuts would be the steepest in the agency’s history and would “make it impossible to stave off mass evictions.” While the most drastic cuts Ms. Fudge alluded to were avoided, the cuts outlined in the debt ceiling deal will cause tens of thousands of households to lose rental assistance in the next two years and risk homelessness.
We cannot afford to subject even more people to the violence that entails.