Without Housing, a report by the Western Regional Advocacy Project, shows how decades of federal housing cutbacks caused a huge rise in homelessness.
by Terry Messman
Street Spirit – First published 2006
In 1898, French novelist Emile Zola wrote an open letter to the President of France, “J’Accuse!” (“I Accuse!”), that exposed a conspiracy by French authorities to frame Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and send him to Devil’s Island for treason, a crime he did not commit, while the real perpetrators walked free, protected by their positions of power.
This month, homeless advocates on the West Coast will release a contemporary version of “J’Accuse!” in the form of a scathing report that shows how the unsheltered victims of our society’s unjust economic policies have been falsely accused by government officials of creating the very homelessness that has imperiled their lives.
And like Zola’s “J’Accuse!,” this new report, entitled Without Housing, will boldly accuse the real culprits of their crimes — the wrongdoers in positions of power in the federal government who have knowingly created a homeless crisis and refused to act responsibly to remedy it.
Like Dreyfus, the victims of homelessness have been sentenced to exile on the streets and alleys of America, a kind of Devil’s Island of the soul that too often results in illness, disease, suffering and premature death on the streets.
To further exacerbate the misery of life on the streets, poor people have been falsely blamed for living dysfunctional lives that caused their own homelessness. City governments across the land have criminalized homeless people for sleeping outdoors, begging for help, and sitting on sidewalks.
The new study by WRAP, Without Housing, could readily be retitled, “J’Accuse! How Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks Created Massive Homelessness in the U.S.”
The WRAP report lifts the burden of blame off the backs of our nation’s unsheltered victims, and instead lays the blame for the disastrous rise of homelessness on the front steps of the White House and other federal agencies that have slashed housing and lifeline welfare programs.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan redefined the role of government by giving large tax cuts to the rich and enormous increases in military spending, while also slashing federal housing and welfare programs.
Reagan’s slash-and-burn approach to housing and welfare resulted in a catastrophic rise in homelessness in the 1980s, a national calamity that has worsened every year since, as both Republicans and Democrats, with only small differences, have embraced the basic Reagan philosophy of gutting housing and welfare, while giving greater federal welfare payoffs to wealthy homeowners, corporations and fabulously wealthy military contractors.
The WRAP report points out that in 1978, before Reagan took office, the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was $83 billion. In 1983, during the middle of Reagan’s first term, the HUD budget had been recklessly slashed to only $18 billion. The nation has never recovered from this deliberately manufactured crisis in affordable housing.
Due to the immediate growth in homelessness triggered by these cutbacks, Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Act in 1987, providing a paltry $880 million in annual homeless assistance, an amount so small that it could never in a thousand years offset the massive damage caused by Reagan’s gutting of the HUD budget. Since 1987, McKinney homeless funding has never risen above $1.4 billion annually.
The Without Housing report states: “Our conclusion is that the national crisis of mass homelessness cannot and will not be resolved without a recommitment by the federal government to fully fund legitimate housing programs. No matter how many hundreds of plans that communities are required to write, filling a $54 billion hole in affordable housing with $1.4 billion in homeless assistance funding is an exercise in futility that can never be compensated for by any amount of local coordination or consolidation.”
Using carefully analyzed statistics and eye-opening charts to track the federal government’s spending on housing for the past 25 years, the report shows that steep cuts to the HUD budget run exactly parallel to the sharp increase in homelessness.
To make matters worse, the federal government provides large subsidies for wealthy homeowners that utterly dwarf the pittance provided to subsidize low-income housing. The WRAP report shows that in 2005, homeowner subsidies in the form of mortgage interest tax deductions totaled over $133 billion, while HUD spending on affordable housing was only $31 billion — a gap of more than $91 billion.
Western Regional Advocacy Project is a coalition of six homeless organizations on the West Coast. WRAP members include Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency in Berkeley, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, Street Spirit in Oakland, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Real Change in Seattle, and Sisters of the Road in Portland.
The mission of WRAP was spearheaded by Paul Boden, who was the director of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness for 17 years, from 1988 to 2005. Boden had worked tirelessly as an organizer with the Coalition to defend the human rights of homeless people. During his years of local organizing, he found that what was missing was a powerful voice from the grassroots that could influence policymakers in Washington, D.C.
In an interview, Boden said, “There are many groups like the Coalition on Homelessness that are doing amazing, incredible social-justice work in local communities. That is what’s not being heard or talked about or respected in Washington, D.C. The only way we are going to get it respected in D.C. is by coming together amongst ourselves and creating our own voice. WRAP is trying to bring a powerful voice at a national level to the incredible work that the local groups are doing.”
A collective deception
The WRAP report calls it a “collective deception” when politicians and the media blame individual dysfunction for creating homelessness while refusing to acknowledge the central role of catastrophic cutbacks in federal housing.
Boden said, “I kept hearing — and probably had chanted myself a hundred times — that ‘America has gotten out of the housing business.’ They haven’t at all! If anything, the nation’s commitment to housing has increased. But what they did in the early ’80s was they dramatically shifted the focus of who receives the lion’s share of housing subsidies. They switched it to mortgage companies, national realtors’ association members, and wealthier households.”
When housing grows increasingly unaffordable for low-income people, then nearly any personal problems — divorce, low-wage jobs, welfare cuts, job loss, health problems, mental disability or substance abuse — can result in homelessness. Yet the approach of federal and local governments has been to provide small grants to nonprofit agencies in a misguided attempt to fix this systemic crisis in affordable housing by “fixing” the individual who has fallen through the gaps in the safety net.
The shell game
Over the past 25 years, city, state and federal officials have held countless meetings that defined and redefined different subsections of the homeless population that nonprofits would be funded to serve. Each new planning body created a new plan that would prioritize a different group, whether homeless families, veterans, the dual-diagnosed, or, under the Bush administration’s Chronic Homeless Initiative, the “chronically homeless.”
Boden said, “The Chronic Homeless Initiative is just the latest policy flavor of picking one subsection of the homeless population and saying, ‘That’s our people. That’s our priority.’ Over 25 years, we’ve seen it shift from focusing on the dual diagnosed, then to families for a quick minute, to youth for a hot second, to veterans and then to the chronically homeless. It’s just a shell game. And it hurts people because programs get created when their subsection is the policy flavor of the month, and they start serving and become part of people’s lives. Then, when they’re no longer in favor, and another subsection has been prioritized, the programs close down.”
All these efforts were largely futile because the shortfall in housing is an unbridgeable chasm that none of the governmental plans seriously addressed.
“Yes, there are homeless people with mental health issues, there are homeless people who are alcoholics,” Boden said. “It’s not a fun day out there, so there is certainly a high level of depression within the homeless community. But that is not what created all this homelessness. No matter what else a person has going on in their life, until they have a home, they’re homeless. So when you look at homelessness — being without a home — we say create the fucking homes!”
Building bombs, not homes
Even as HUD cuts Section 8 programs and dismantles public housing, the United States spends more on the military than any other country — nearly $500 billion.
Boden said, “It was ironic to read on the global security website that we can blow up the 50 largest cities in the world, at a given moment’s notice, without reloading. So our shores are pretty safe from being invaded by an enemy country, and I don’t quite see the fixation to spend money on a bigger, better stockpile of weapons. It’s a very expensive, insatiable appetite, and I just think that people need to know that a few less weapons, and we would have the funding we need to create housing for everybody who lives in this country.”
Without Housing demonstrates that very small cuts in military programs could alleviate homelessness. “The U.S. government plans to spend more money on one destroyer than it spent on all capital expenses for public housing; more on ten F-22 fighters than on all 2005 operating expenses for public housing; and twice as much on a single submarine than on all McKinney-Vento homeless assistance.”
In the case of Dreyfus, French officials carried out a cover-up for years, until Zola’s blistering indictment exonerated the innocent Dreyfus and accused the high military officials guilty of both the crimes and the cover-up.
In the case of homeless Americans, U.S. government officials continue to cover up the crimes they have committed in purposely slashing affordable housing programs, knowing that this would reduce the poorest, sickest, and most disabled citizens to homelessness. It is time to lift the blame for homelessness off the backs of the poorest and most disabled citizens. Those who want to lay the blame for this national disgrace where it really belongs could march through the doors of the White House, and into the offices of Congressional representatives, and simply say: “J’Accuse!”