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We Could End Homelessness Right Now, If Only Capitalism Didn’t Get in the Way

At the heart of today’s housing crisis is a capitalist economy built on shadowy finances and esoteric debt.

A homeless camp under a bridge on I-35 in Austin, Texas, on February 17, 2021.

Part of the Series

Though houseless folks number more than half-a-million in the United States, this number only begins to capture the gravity of our situation. What was already widely considered a “nationwide housing crisis” years ago has worsened amid the “corona crash.” At the time of writing, between 30 and 40 million people in the United States are at risk of eviction and homelessness as the federal eviction moratorium inches toward expiration on March 31, 2021.

While our lives are largely confined indoors, it is important to look outside to see why homelessness remains such a persistent problem in the world’s wealthiest country. Ours is a walled world of borders, barricades, cages and concrete that keep the poor apart from “us.” They are disappeared, expunged from out sight. Aggressive policing of working-class, Black and Brown communities enforces the boundaries where walls fail. Even the lowly park bench has a part to play. Hostile architecture like slanted or segmented benches, awning gaps, spikes and nighttime sprinkler systems keep our homeless neighbors exhausted and on the run.

This architecture has also gone digital. Some cities have begun to supplant expensive social workers with databases, algorithms and risk models to dole out services, according to political scientist Virginia Eubanks, and, in the process, create what she calls a “digital poorhouse.” In this new iteration of the 17th-century creation, the derelict vanish behind a blinking computer screen: a nonevent. Digitizing the poorhouse hasn’t lowered costs as it promised to, however. Instead, anti-welfare policies in the United States have slashed caseloads to block access to entitlements. In their place, city and government officials have advocated for individual charity and cottage industry to caulk the cracks left behind as social services crumble and entitlements dry up.

Yet these efforts and city and federal programming always seem to come up short. In the very first paragraph of Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, scholars Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording and Sanford Schram summarize why:

In practice, social programs are rarely designed or evaluated as if the elimination of poverty were an attainable goal. Programs for the poor are used mainly to temper the hardships of poverty and ensure that they do not become disruptive for the broader society. They support the impoverished in ways designed to make poor communities more manageable and to shepherd the poor into the lower reaches of societal institutions.

In abandoning the goal of ending poverty, inequality sediments. It is naturalized as a permanent feature of our social landscape.

Other inequalities follow suit. In the case of the “housing crisis,” it’s not just people who are unhoused. The threat of homelessness also looms over those who are housing insecure. And they are legion. In 2006, historian Mike Davis counted about 200,000 slums around the world, which were then home to 1 billion people, a number that has grown to an estimated 1.6 billion since. It bears repeating: Today, 1 in 8 people around the world lives in a slum. While a certain level of poverty has been a fixture in capitalist societies for centuries — in the United States, for instance, the poorhouse predates “the Constitution by 125 years” — our “planet of slums” is actually a recent phenomenon, according to Davis. Forged on the anvil of neoliberal economics, most of the world’s slums have sprung up since the 1980s, the decade when elites spearheaded a reengineering of the world around transnational capitalism. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank imposed on the Global South “structural adjustment programs” that plundered state coffers and sold off vast tracts of land and resources to unnamed ghosts. They ordered governments to take hatchets to social safety nets and shrink their national tax bases to invite foreign investment. Right-wing politicians then used the resultant budget shortfalls as an alibi to cut social services. Unemployment, mass impoverishment and mass suffering predictably skyrocketed. When economic crisis set in, the financial institutions responsible for the mess prescribed austerity: more cuts, more slashes, more scorched earth. The cycle ran anew.

In the meantime, the weight of looted gold grew heavier in the hands of global elites, who submerged it deep in Swiss banks and tropical tax havens. This was what the “Panama Papers” (2016), the “Paradise Papers” (2017) and the FinCEN Files (2020) were all about: a vast, elite-led conspiracy to squirrel away assets and avoid taxation. While itself deplorable, the problem resurfaces with a vengeance downstream. In the United States, the wealthiest 1 percent are responsible for 70 percent of lost tax revenue. The middle class and the poor are made, yet again, to foot the bill.

This level of chaos and disruption requires force to keep a lid on social unrest. Sociologist Forrest Stuart found in his ethnography of Los Angeles’s Skid Row that no investigation into the horrors of impoverishment and homelessness is complete without first understanding the role of police. Their fingerprints are everywhere, even on language. A “tenderloin” like San Francisco’s, for example, is not just a vice-ridden district populated by unfortunate souls. Rather, a tenderloin is a district controlled by corrupt police who permit vice (such as drug dealing and gambling) because they receive payoffs to look the other way. Such bribery is, nowadays, less critical to ensuring money flows to police than, say, civil asset forfeiture, citations or city budgets. In Oakland and Los Angeles, California, for example, police departments eat up a colossal 44 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of general funds.

As more and more are made housing insecure by rising rent and crumbling social safety nets, U.S. cities have called upon law enforcement to succeed the institutions they worked to dismantle in the 1980s and 1990s. Officers themselves complain about the expectation that cops will fulfill their own duties as well as those of now-scarce social workers. Whatever their motives, neither self-proclaimed “warrior cops” nor their well-meaning peers were ever cut out to pick up the pieces. Law enforcement, it appears, cannot exist in tandem with social work. One must take precedence, and it is reliably enforcement that does.

Help is not on the way. Police departments in a number of U.S. cities aid in evictions, conduct street sweeps, and adhere to debunked models of policing: i.e., zero tolerance, broken windows and algorithmic policing. For unhoused people, a police presence generally brings with it harassment and careless cruelty, enforcing a preordained “law and order” whose questionable morality police seem to dismiss as above their paygrade and beyond their concern. Take, for example, cities with anti-homeless legislation. Police in some of these jurisdictions have gone so far as to arrest volunteers for feeding and tending to the poor. (In 2014, such laws were on the books in 71 U.S. cities.) Officers claim, falsely, this charity of hot meals actually harms houseless people and their chances for self-sufficiency. But starving the poor is a hard circle to square with one’s duties to “protect and serve.” It is important to note that throughout its long history in the United States, “policing,” Stuart writes, “has been at its most punitive precisely during those historical periods when the police were most concerned with saving the urban poor from themselves.”

It’s more than just law enforcement or the World Bank, however. Housing crises hint at a deeper capitalist crisis: Growth in the market-based economy has stagnated and capital has moved to financialization. That city governments are building more housing sounds wonderful were it not for the fact that most new apartment buildings are luxury condominiums few can afford. Instead, luxury high-rises creep across our cities because they provide the highest return on investment, not because they provide much-needed shelter for people. If developers have worked to manipulate city zoning and landlords to chip away at rent-control policies, it is speculators and city governments who benefit most from their work.

In plain language, cities are no longer built “for the common people to live in”; they are built as financial instruments “for people and institutions to invest in.” Indeed, urban building booms have little to do with replenishing housing stock or addressing homelessness. Already, in many housing-impacted regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, empty dwellings outnumber every person without a home by a factor of five. Housing stock is clearly not the issue. Rather, the heart of today’s housing crisis lies in an unhealthy capitalist economy dependent on shadowy financial capital and esoteric debt instruments.

The fallout has proven calamitous. Take, for instance, the lead-up to the 2007-2010 subprime mortgage crisis that brought transnational capitalism to its knees. Bankers had, as an institutional practice, targeted individuals from low-income communities of color with loans and mortgages that included exorbitantly high interest rates and fees, even when the borrower qualified for better terms and conditions. With default all but ensured, banks then bet against their borrowers. Wells Fargo went further, placing “bounties” on the heads of poor Black and Brown lenders. According to reporting from The New York Times, executives doled out “cash incentives to aggressively market subprime loans in minority communities.” An institutional lingo arose within the ranks of Wells Fargo that highlights the racist attitudes that underpin this predatory lending: subprime loans were “ghetto loans” and borrowers were “mud people.”

When the real estate bubble burst, these predatory banks absconded scot-free: only one executive at Credit Suisse was held accountable for reckless lending practices, which led to the catastrophic global financial crisis of 2008. On top of it all, the lending institutions in question were bailed out with over $700 billion in taxpayer dollars — one of the last legislative efforts by the George W. Bush administration. The common citizen suffered the consequences, taking the fall for a crisis they had no hand in creating. Around 10 million Americans lost their homes — many ended up homeless — and Black and Latino families lost, on average, a staggering half of their wealth as a result of the foreclosure crisis. Each of those 10 million, after losing their largest single source of wealth — their home — were subsequently forced to search for housing in the rental market.

This is easier said than done. For the homeless and precariously housed, finding housing means more than finding shelter, sociologist Matt Desmond writes in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. It’s also cost, quality, security and distance from work, among other factors. And there’s a grueling punishment for a single misstep. In his ethnography of the rental market in Milwaukee, Desmond details how Black women already thrown into poverty by the incarceration of a loved one confront a barrage of obstacles meant to clamp shut the doors to habitable housing. The eight Milwaukee families he profiles make the difficult transition from hovel to hovel, an endeavor that almost becomes a job itself, one that women, the main victims of evictions, must take on in addition to their formal employment.

There’s a feeling of whiplash associated with these forced evictions and disjuncture. After years of relocating back-and-forth, economic security is lost in the scramble. Being poor is, James Baldwin noted, quite expensive. Indeed, landlords overcharge renters who use housing vouchers and often refuse to rent smaller, cheaper units to families, meaning most can’t save up the small sums of cash that would otherwise help them to escape their squalid living situation. And it’s often these small sums that matter. During his research, Desmond also determined it’s the most uninhabitable homes that are most profitable: with a monthly $270 extra in rent separating a pigsty from Milwaukee’s chic flats.

The open secret, of course, is that poverty is lucrative to real estate tycoons and private housing markets. “There is a lot to like about urban poverty,” trumpeted Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard.

Despite appearances, however, we’ve got a lot to be hopeful for. Hope, says activist-scholar Mariame Kaba, is a discipline. It means doing the work of mutual aid, politicking and organizing. It means training your eye to hone in on those miraculous neighbors of ours who are doing the work. It means following their lead.

While a global pandemic of coronavirus rages, many people without homes –especially Black mothers — began to occupy vacant homes across the United States: from Oakland and Seattle to Philadelphia and Kansas City. These women followed the mandates of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They retreated indoors and stayed there. City officials ordered them to vacate and promised housing in the future, but they didn’t relent. They took unused homes where they needed to live now.

Their hope is infectious, and it is inspiring a group of dedicated activists to challenge property relations. In early January 2021, I got a chance to speak with activists with Tacoma Housing Now, a community organization intent on housing each person in the Tacoma, Washington, area. Arrow, an Iraq War veteran and mental health counselor, who preferred to withhold their last name, and Irene Morrison, a union organizer with a Ph.D. in English, both had a little brain fog — they were convalescing from COVID-19 — but their insights were clear-sighted, calculated. “Capitalism is the problem,” Irene said early on. “There is enough housing, it’s just a matter of unequal distribution of wealth.”

“Our position,” they added, is that “not one more death is acceptable.” The city’s “idea that ‘we just need more time to build housing,’ well, how long’s that going to take? People are going to die between now and then.” And people have. Tacoma Housing Now came to their direct action after a particularly dreadful death of a homeless elder, Thomas “Tommy” Hutchinson. Tommy had died a few weeks earlier of “exposure,” the medical term for a condition resulting from prolonged time in extreme temperatures and environmental conditions. It was an icy night, but not cold enough to open up the city’s warming shelters. “Thirty-five or thirty-six degrees,” Arrow said, didn’t meet the criteria for “inclement weather.” Tommy froze to death. He was 68 years old.

He was one of “at least 10,971 people [who] have experienced homelessness” in Pierce County last year, many of them in Tacoma. (Exact numbers are difficult to quantify.) It is an ongoing plight, and the city has admitted as much. In 2017, the status of Tacoma’s unhoused had deteriorated so dreadfully that the city declared a state of emergency and $9 million was allotted to expand social services and temporary housing. But days folded into months. Promises wilted. The talk about helping the homeless turned out to be just that: talk. Three years later, little had changed.

Since the city government wouldn’t fulfill its duty, activists decided they would. “We now need radically different solutions, and there’s one solution that requires no investment,” Arrow said, “There are schools that are vacant that have nurses’ stations and gymnasiums and showers and pools and all sorts of things that we can open up for community centers.”

Tacoma Housing Now (THN) is a diverse coalition: electricians, construction workers, organizers and health care providers all working to take their neighbors off the streets. In their direct action from December 24 to December 30, activists moved 43 people into 18 hotel rooms; some of these 43 have been homeless for more than two decades. The community responded with an outpouring of support — as well as some instances of harassment — and evictions aside, the action generated an important victory: the city opened up more warming shelters for the unhoused, bringing the total number of beds from 55 to 195.

“We’re not going anywhere. I will take as many buildings as need be taken,” Arrow said. “I will dump as much trash in front of City Hall as needs to be dumped if it gives me one single shelter space.” (In mid-January, neighboring King County and the city of Puyallup announced plans to buy up hotels to permanently house its unhoused citizens, a victory for the organization. Tacoma has been more reluctant, according to two other THN activists, Parrish and Wolf, who told me that the local government has reneged on its promise to keep one of its warming shelters open through the end of March, choosing to close them at the beginning of the month, even as temperatures hover in the high-30s and low-40s range. City officials may be slowly working to meet the need, but THN argues that much more is necessary.)

Speaking with Irene and Arrow, it’s clear that the solution is right in front of us. There’s no complex mathematics, no tricky logistics. The pieces are all in place: the homes are already built, the power on, the water running. There’s no assembly required. Ending homelessness is cut-and-dry. “The only thing we need to do to make that happen,” Arrow told me, “is for the city to say OK.”

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