By Shabbir Rizvi
It’s no secret there is a serious homelessness problem in the United States, which has assumed alarming proportions in recent years, from rough sleeping to being chronically homeless to living in crowded, makeshift accommodations.
A quick trip through any major American city and you can see it for yourself - “tent cities” underneath highways or alongside parks, people sleeping on the sidewalk, overcrowded and resource-stripped shelters.
It is estimated that there are nearly 600,000 homeless people across the US, marking the highest yearly surge since the government began tracking the data in 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Major cities like Los Angeles are seeing homeless populations spike almost 10 percent from last year.
This problem has been deeply exacerbated in the post-pandemic era. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, rent was already skyrocketing due to inflation levels as well as “development projects”, forcing long-time residents, mainly minorities, out of their own neighborhoods.
The pandemic halted the US economy (at least for the working class) for several months and thus, rent protections had to be placed primarily across state levels.
With Americans out of jobs and back pay piling up on rent, the then-Donald Trump administration released three rounds of stimulus checks over the course of a year, totaling around $3,200 for most individuals.
Deeply insufficient, this rent would likely only cover one month’s worth of rent in most major cities - the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom New York City apartment is just over $2,000.
The Biden administration focused on returning things “back to normal” and beating the pandemic - mostly for a political goal - without addressing the reality that millions of Americans face.
Not only did rent protections come crashing down without addressing the hundreds of millions of dollars owed in back pay - but the Biden administration cut essential benefits like SNAP benefits, which kicked millions off food stamps.
A study showed these benefits reduced poverty by 10 percent, and even child poverty by 14 percent.
Declaring the end of the pandemic and the victory over COVID-19 was no doubt a political victory for the Biden administration, but in doing so, it forced thousands of Americans out of their homes and into the streets.
The COVID-era protections - which proved the Federal government is capable of working with State governments to fight poverty and protect people - did not put things “back to normal” but returned thousands of people to the same issues with worse conditions.
Adding to the diminishing conditions is the threat of a looming recession. Inflation has driven up the cost of basic living in the US - groceries, gas, electricity. So while SNAP benefits are being cut, costs of the very same items those benefits were helping ordinary Americans out with are rising.
Then comes the blame game. Federal authorities shift the blame to local authorities and local policy failures when it comes to the rapidly growing homeless population. Local authorities blame the lack of Federal leadership in curtailing the nationwide issue.
Perhaps the only people taking serious steps to fight the homelessness crisis are average everyday Americans. Groups like Bring Chicago Home take a multi-pronged approach to addressing the homelessness crisis at a local level.
Creating a policy that would house the 65,000 homeless people living in Chicago, the group has also disrupted then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot multiple times throughout various meetings, demanding that she take action. Their tactics so far have been a success.
Now, Mayor Brandon Johnson has adopted the Bring Chicago Home Initiative, using real estate taxes for programs to end homelessness. The success of these policies is yet to be seen, but this initiative would not have seen the light of day if it weren’t for community organizations.
A similar community pushback is also seen in New York. The New York City rent board intended to pass a 2-5% rent increase across major areas of the city. Local activists stormed the stage with City Council members to demand the increase be stopped. Instead of hearing what renters have to say, New York City Mayor Adams supported the decision of the board, and the rent hike was passed.
Throughout major metropolitan cities from liberal California all the way to conservative Florida, it has been the same story over and over again.
It is indeed a stark reality. Americans who are themselves struggling and living paycheck to paycheck are the ones taking care of each other and fighting for each other.
It may seem like the issue is beyond Washington’s grasp, but the reality is that if it wanted to, Washington could solve the homelessness issue overnight.
There are currently sixteen million homes completely vacant across the US. With only half a million homeless people, there is more than plenty of housing available for the homeless.
One could argue that these homes are not exactly where there are homeless people, but that is not true. A good chunk of these homes are within the city limits of most major cities, and even then a relocation program would not cost much at all.
Speaking of things that do not cost much, solving the homelessness issue itself would cost very little.
According to Advocacy to Alleviate Homelessness, it would cost just over $20 billion to end the crisis. In isolation, this amount seems like a lot, but let's look at how the Biden administration has spent money.
$43 billion on military aid alone to Ukraine (this omits billions of dollars in financial aid, food aid, logistics, etc.)
$10 billion on federal stimulus to bolster already militarized police
$80 billion on public prisons and jails
The money spent on policing and prisons is worth taking particular notice of, as homelessness itself is treated as a crime.
Even in the freezing winter, law enforcement across the country often engage in mass “sweeps” of homeless camps, tearing down tents and throwing away what little personal belongings they have.
Politicians and some business owners in various areas complain that the tents and homeless people themselves aren’t attractive and prevent people from coming to their towns or businesses.
Ironically, it's often these very businesses that drive the cost of living in an area and price people out of their homes. So, instead of alleviating the crisis through fixed-price renting, the solution taken on by local authorities is to not only evict people from their homes but drive them from the area completely.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reports: “In the past few months, we have witnessed City crews threaten to ticket people for sleeping on the sidewalk in Uptown, force elderly and disabled people to move their property in the middle of the winter for no apparent reason, bulldoze a tent city while seizing tents that looked almost new and recently occupied, and attempt to seize the tent of a homeless man who was present and asserting that the tent belonged to him.”
The threat of homelessness is not going away in the United States. As the economy dwindles and more Americans are forced into living paycheck to paycheck, Federal to State governments throw money at criminalization of the homeless instead of actually solving homelessness.
The authorities believe that homelessness can’t be an issue if nobody sees it. But the reality is everyone sees it. It is a societal crisis. Many feel that they could be next, as more than half of Americans are one paycheck away from homelessness, and with the cost of living skyrocketing, saving money is also becoming a challenge.
With real leadership that values human life over profits, perhaps one day Americans will be able to solve the homelessness crisis. But until then, they should not rely on their current political leadership, whether Democrat or Republican, to do anything substantial.
The only way forward is for the American people to organize together and take an offensive approach to solving their own problems.
Shabbir Rizvi is a Chicago-based political analyst with a focus on US internal security and foreign policy.
(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Press TV