Tonight, in the wealthiest nation on earth and in the midst of a global pandemic, more than a half a million people — including 100,000 children — are without a place to call home. Homelessness is one of our country’s most urgent, tragic and solvable crises, but for too long policymakers have failed to act.
Even before COVID-19, homelessness was a growing crisis, one that demanded urgent action from all levels of government. Today, we clearly see the public-health implications of decades of inaction to end homelessness: Some of our country’s most vulnerable people, sleeping on sidewalks or in congregate shelters, at heightened risk of contracting, spreading and dying from the coronavirus.
How did we come to this? Deliberate inaction. The experience of homelessness has always been the structural failing of an immensely wealthy country that neglects to prioritize the housing needs of America’s lowest-income families.
The primary reason people become homeless is because they lack access to a decent, accessible and affordable home. There are fewer than four affordable homes for every 10 of the lowest-income people in America. Without affordable options, the vast majority of the lowest-income families pay at least half of their limited income on rent, forcing them to make impossible trade-offs between buying healthy food or needed medication and keeping a roof over their head. Just one unexpected financial shock can result in eviction and, in worst cases, homelessness, with all its associated individual, familial and societal costs.
For many of these families on the brink of homelessness, the coronavirus and its health and financial fallout is that shock. For most of them, there’s no help available to keep them from facing eviction and the spiraling down into poverty that results. Decades of chronic underfunding for housing assistance leave us with a housing-lottery system, where only one in four families that are eligible for housing assistance receive any.
Homelessness does the greatest harm to people of color. While Black households make up 13% of the overall population, they account for an astounding 40% of people experiencing homelessness, a result of structural racism, discrimination in housing and lower wages among Black Americans. Housing justice and racial justice are inextricably linked.
Rather than address the underlying, systemic causes of homelessness, the Trump administration continues to propose policy changes that would worsen homelessness. For the fourth year in a row, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson proposed drastically shrinking or eliminating federal programs that help America’s lowest-income people afford a home: He proposed tripling rents for the lowest income subsidized renters, evicting 100,000 immigrant families from federal housing assistance and allowing homeless shelters to refuse shelter to LGBTQ people.
Last year, President Donald Trump nominated Robert Marbut, a consultant with a long track record of peddling false and harmful claims about homelessness, to lead the White House’s efforts to combat this crisis. Marbut’s approach ignores decades of research and bipartisan agreement on solutions to homelessness.
Now more than ever, our homeless neighbors need effective, humane solutions. That’s why we worked together on a bill called the “Housing is a Human Right Act.” It would invest $200 billion over 10 years in housing and homelessness services for all who need them. The bill boosts existing federal grant programs and establishes new ones, such as a block grant program that helps communities develop infrastructure that responds to the needs of people experiencing homelessness or housing instability. It gives people with lived experience a seat at the table in policy decisions. It protects tenants’ rights and expands development of affordable housing, and cracks down on those who profit from displacement. And this bill would ensure that voters who are experiencing housing instability can have their voices heard at the ballot box.
The legislation, with other bills introduced by progressive members of Congress, form the People’s Housing Platform. The platform is built on the premise that housing is a human right, that understands that homelessness is not a moral failure but a structural failing on the part of a society and that invests in solutions at a scale necessary to end homelessness.
As we weather this public-health crisis and look to rebuild our country in the months and years ahead, we must do so with long-term solutions and policies grounded in the belief that every human being has the right to basic necessities we take for granted like a bed to sleep in and a roof over our heads. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a truly healthy, thriving society until everyone in America has a safe, accessible and affordable place to live.