In 1933, when over a million Americans were homeless, President Roosevelt's New Deal made their economic and social well-being a federal responsibility. In 2008, an estimated 3.5 million Americans will live without housing; homeless children in school number more than 900,000, according to the Department of Education. Ironically, in this election year -- which marks the 75th anniversary of the New Deal -- neither major party nor presidential candidate has acknowledged a federal responsibility. It is time that they do so.
The federal government created the contemporary crisis of mass homelessness by cutting and then refusing to restore billions and billions of dollars in funding for affordable housing programs. Since 1982, every federal plan to address homelessness has failed because every plan has been based on the assumption that something was wrong with the people who were finding themselves without housing. Every plan has focused on individuals; FEMA emergency shelter plans, HUD Continuum of Care plans and 10-Year Plans to End Homelessness as spearheaded by the Bush administration's Interagency Council on Homelessness all identify homeless people as "the problem" that needs fixing.
The reemergence of massive homelessness is unrelated to any lack of outreach or case management. The simple fact is that homelessness reappeared because funding for federal affordable housing programs has been cut by $54 billion a year (in 2004 constant dollars) since 1978. The number of people without housing has increased steadily since then.
As local governments have become more and more hard-pressed to shelter -- much less house -- this ever-increasing homeless population, many have turned to draconian measures to solve their "homeless problems," and poor people Without Housing are becoming poor people Without Rights.
Local efforts often start with innocuous-sounding language about the "quality of life" of the residential and business sectors of the community, or sometimes those efforts are billed to ensure that communities don't become "magnets for the homeless." But over time, more laws and ordinances get passed, and as these are implemented it is only under very stringent "time, place and manner" restrictions that are enforced by private security companies and local and state police departments that homeless people are tolerated -- if at all.
The most common public space and activity restrictions are those aimed at camping, sitting, lying down, or trespassing on either public or private land, panhandling, sleeping, blocking the sidewalk, jaywalking, and possessing "stolen property" (shopping carts and milk crates) -- to name just a few. All have one primary goal: to remove from local communities people whose mere presence they deem objectionable.
This nationwide practice has escaped civil rights protections because on their face, these programs are not clearly discriminatory. Local laws are often drafted in such a way as to appear to apply equally to all people in a community. In fact, however, enforcement is very much impacted by skin color, disability, or appearance.
Anti-homeless laws and ordinances and their application have created a loophole that allows for the circumvention of a homeless person's right to due process under law. The process by which homeless people face repeated incarceration generally follows this scenario: A homeless man is sleeping outdoors. A local ordinance makes it illegal to do so. The man gets a ticket for the infraction. Because it's not a jailable offense, he is not entitled to legal representation. Because he doesn't appear in court or simply can't pay the fine, a misdemeanor warrant is issued. When cited a second time for a similar violation, the outstanding warrant results in arrest. He spends a couple of days in jail, and when brought before the judge he is sentenced to time served, or his case gets dismissed. Now back on the street, he is just as homeless as he was before, but now he has a criminal record, which denies him access to the services needed to exit homelessness.
Local governments know that these infractions will ultimately lead to unpleasant interactions with police -- and incarceration -- and therefore feel confident that a strong enough police and private security presence will get homeless people to leave areas where they are not wanted.
Just like anti-Okie and Jim Crow laws of the past, local government programs designed to remove "undesirable" people from their communities violate civil and human rights.
Fact: Compared to 1978, the U.S. government is now spending nearly 65 percent less on developing and maintaining affordable housing for poor people. ($83 billion was appropriated in 1978, while only $29 billion was allocated in 2005.)
Fact: The number of "mental health courts" has grown from two in 1997 to more than 100 today. Meanwhile, the top three residential mental health care facilities in the nation are: Los Angeles County Jail, Cook County Jail (Chicago), and Rikers Island (New York City).
FDR used the power of his office to marshal the resources of the federal government to address the housing, health care, educational and economic security needs of poor and homeless people. He lobbied for "decent homes for which there is a distressing need among [those] of our population [who are] ill-housed." Our current presidential candidates must be urged to do no less.