What it Will Take to End Homelessness
Like many people, I grew up believing that owning a home was the ultimate goal – it signaled success and stability and being a part of the “American Dream”. As a young white woman from the suburbs, I absorbed all the messages about housing being a good investment – renting is “throwing your money away”, owning a house is a “nest egg” for a comfortable retirement, you should avoid doing anything that would “decrease the value” of your home, a “starter home” will lead to a bigger and better home…and you can always make your starter home an “income property.”
And now, as a not-so-young white woman in the city who never managed to achieve this “dream” and who understands the historical and present-day reasons that so many are excluded from it, I find myself enamored with the more practical and more whimsical side of homeownership. I dream of being able to tear up the old linoleum in our kitchen and I imagine what it would be like to get backyard chickens. Beyond the absolute necessity of having a roof over our heads to keep us safe and healthy, there is something wonderful about having your own space to personalize and improve.
When I envision an end to homelessness, I picture a safe and functional space for every person and family that is full of personality. I see spaces where we can be in community and I see doors that offer privacy. I see art on the walls and plants on shelves. I see a guitar in the corner and a basketball near the door. I see pantries full of favorite snacks and I see a fridge with a few beverages and some takeout containers. I see neat floral bedspreads and throw pillows. I see sheets and fuzzy blankets in a tangled mess. I see perfectly organized bathrooms, and dressers with makeup and hair ties everywhere. I see a big TV with a gaming console. I see a quiet room with a fireplace and an easy chair.
At the National Homeless Law Center, we talk about housing being a human right. But what we really mean is that housing is a necessity and we have a collective responsibility to ensure that every person has access to it. But how do we get there? How do we bring everyone home?
Prior to joining the Law Center, I worked for many years in direct services in Seattle – dealing with immediate crises and helping people navigate (completely inadequate) systems to try to access or maintain housing, healthcare, and other basic needs. It doesn’t leave much time to think deeply and systemically. But it does teach you what isn’t working and where our systems are breaking down. And when it came to housing, helping someone move from homelessness to housing required an unsustainable mix of vouchers, housing navigators, government benefits, nonprofit subsidies, lawyers, charitable donations, churches, mutual aid, and more. And still, people were entering homelessness faster than we could ever house people in a city with an unemployment rate of 2%, a high minimum wage, and strong tenant protections. It honestly felt hopeless to me. No matter how much we were able to increase people’s benefits, secure higher wages, or put in place more protections for tenants – it was never enough. The rent was always just out of reach.
I came to the Law Center with a deep commitment to be as honest and as clear as possible about what it will actually take to end homelessness, and specifically homelessness for young people. I do think there is a path to ending homelessness by collecting enough revenue through progressive taxation at the federal, state, and local levels to create enough housing units or provide enough subsidies for all low and very low-income households to access what they need, especially if paired with a legal right to housing. There is certainly enough wealth in this country to house all of us, many times over, if we could only prioritize collecting it and spending it appropriately. But this solution only gets at half this issue – the issue of not having enough physical units of housing that are affordable for people (or enough vouchers that are actually high enough to cover rent). And because housing is treated as a commodity in this country (meaning its cost is determined by market forces that prioritize profit), this solution means that government subsidies funded by our tax dollars will inevitably end up benefiting people and corporations that need it the least.
What if your house wasn’t an investment for you or somebody else? What if it wasn’t part of our retirement plans or portfolios? What if we shared the burden and cost of maintaining housing? What if everyone, regardless of income, had the option of living in public, social, or nonprofit housing?
As such, I am looking for solutions that:
- Recognize our collective need for different types of housing at different points in our lives;
- Enable us to invest our resources directly in creating, maintaining, and climate-proofing housing in our own communities;
- Give us the power to care for and personalize our living spaces without participating in a rigged and racist system that excludes millions of people from accessing adequate housing; and
- Balance privacy and community, as well as independence and interdependence.
Part of our theory of change for the State Index on Youth Homelessness is that “[y]outh homelessness is largely a housing problem and solving it will require the decommodification of most housing, along with the creation of new housing supply and care for our current supply.” Over the next six months, we will be highlighting the movement to decommodify housing, how it relates to youth homelessness and anti-oppression work, and state-level policies that can help.