“This is no time … to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the long, shameful history of homelessness in the United States, we have never looked over the precipice into such a deep chasm while at the same time having the critical ingredients for bold thinking on housing justice to climb out of this hole. The new administration, a new Congress, and a sense of collective rebuilding after a disaster should provide the raw material to spur development, collective action, and, yes, real solutions.
There is a potential tidal wave of evictions after we just lived through the most significant health disaster in a century, along with the unprecedented job losses. Many of those jobs are not coming back, and people will have to look for work in other industries. We all experienced such a shock to the system that we have to come together to right the ship.
Since this touched us all, we do not need to rehash the number of people who died because of COVID-19 or the trauma we all experienced with shuttered businesses and offices, or the dramatic changes in the social service safety net. The whole world changed in March of 2020, and for fragile populations, it was often a daily struggle to stay safe, get food, and find a place out of the weather.
Many cities stepped forward and de-concentrated the shelters. They had a detailed plan with placing people into hotels and avoided outbreaks among the population. Then there were those already overwhelmed cities having neglected the population for decades that there was no way to dig themselves out during a pandemic. We saw outbreaks in several shelters, and then those who were infected spread the virus to others in their family or among friends living outside.
Social service providers could not provide direct contact, and the mental health outreach system virtually collapsed across the United States. We will need to rebuild many social service systems, and hopefully, we will learn from past mistakes.
We will need to confront the inequity in the homeless system caused by structural racism. We have learned that Black people, Latinx, and Native American individuals continue to be overrepresented in the homeless system and have borne the brunt of the negative effects of the pandemic. We found through studies that government redlining and government-sponsored segregation have had longstanding and crippling effects on minority communities and persist to this day. We applaud the efforts going on in many communities and the administrations to take steps to focus on racial equity in our homeless response. We found that we must do a better job of placing people in healthy communities or the homeless system becomes just another vehicle for redlining.
The National Coalition for the Homeless lost family and friends over the last year; despite all the hardships, there are so many reasons to see hope for the future concerning homelessness. We have a new administration in Washington that is committed to reducing poverty in America. Many of the Biden cabinet members have a background in fighting to preserve and expand anti-poverty programs. We have a Secretary for Housing and Urban Development who hails from the continental United States’ poorest city; she has a clear understanding of homelessness and poverty.
However, more importantly, the administration seems to understand the urgency of the problem and wants to take us back to a time when homelessness received a federal response on a scale with other emergencies, not a bureaucracy to manage. Faith in government has taken a real hit over the last decade, but please give them a chance before passing judgment. Everything changed in January 2017, and we all need a little time to repair and replace the integrity of the government broken after the metaphorical hurricane we lived through.
We have a new Congress that should be more willing to embrace new ideas and fund new strategies. There should no longer be opposition to spending money since our government’s last four years embraced reckless spending and tax cuts for the wealthy. We must end the filibuster in its current form in order to move forward with good ideas. We also cannot go back to the way things were in the past. We cannot develop huge shelters in gymnasiums or abandoned schools. They did not serve the needs of most of the population and indeed stripped people of their dignity.
Over the last year, we learned the value of hotel/motel spaces and the privacy and empowerment they provide. If shelters are a small part of the solution, they need to be better managed. We cannot allow zoning restrictions and the not-in-my-backyard mentality to slow or halt affordable housing production. Research has demonstrated that outreach to those living outside is critical to overcoming barriers. We need to have a menu of possible paths available to people struggling with housing, and not one facility in which a family who shows up with their dog is not allowed. The pet then becomes homeless or orphaned, or the family stays outside with the pet and battles the elements. We must build on these lessons learned during the last year and be honest about our mistakes over the last 40 years.
The reality is that we saw what the bottom looked like, and we need to kick off the dirt and start
climbing. The crisis touched white, Black, Native American, elderly, disabled, poor, and yes, even the rich. It was a trauma that we collectively overcame, and much like the victory over the Axis powers in 1945, together, we can prosper. We hope to put aside the hostility and division to rebuild the infrastructure (which includes housing) of the United States. We trust that we will put aside the resentment and fear of the “welfare queen” days to experiment with guaranteed incomes.
We look forward to a Justice Department and law enforcement community that will respect the rights of even the poorest among us to restore meaning to the phrase “protect and serve.” If nothing else, we have to realize the value of providing accessible health care to everyone living in the United States to keep us from ever going through a national health crisis again. The National Coalition for the Homeless is poised to push our elected officials to reduce poverty and help “Bring America Home.”
Donald Whitehead is executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.