Submitted by Marvin Miller
The Boston Ethical community has recently been giving its refreshment basket donations to Boston Health Care for the Homeless. We have given our Humanist of the Year award to people involved with providing services for homeless people, dating back to 1983. But why, in 2016, in the richest country in the world, are some people homeless?
Housing is one of the universal human rights in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The right of every family to a decent home is one of the rights that President Franklin Roosevelt said, in his 1944 State of the Union message, that the United States has accepted.
The obvious answer to why people are homeless is that the cost of housing is high and their incomes are too low to afford it. This replaces one question with two, both of which have their origin in the market economy. There is very little housing space available in our cities for people with little income, though there is plenty of residential housing space for people with high incomes. That’s because housing, like most goods, is a market commodity, and those who offer it for sale or rent want as high a price for it as they can get. And some people have little income because their bargaining power is weak, so they can’t demand adequate wages for their work and have little or no non-wage income.
The foregoing suggests that non-market intervention is necessary to counter the effects of the market economy in producing homelessness. From time to time government has stepped in to provide such intervention. According to my encyclopedia, petitions to government to provide free land began as early as 1789. This was supported by the Free Soil party in the 1850s and then by the early Republican party. The Homestead Act was passed during the Lincoln administration. It granted land to would-be farmers. During the New Deal the federal government created the FHA and FNMA, which insured mortgages for people who otherwise wouldn’t be good enough risks to get them. This was an indirect government subsidy.
Government assistance for housing was expanded by the GI Bill after the second world war, and later the Department of Housing and Urban Development provided direct subsidies. These were sharply cut back during the Reagan administration, with the predictable result that homelessness increased substantially then.
People need homes. A home is more than shelter from harsh weather. It’s a place where one has the right to be whenever one wants to be there. It’s a place where one can keep whatever one wants to keep there. It’s a place where one can be secure against unwanted intrusion. Having a home means being part of the community where the home is located. As the UN Declaration says, it needs to be treated as a universal human right.
As long as housing is predominantly a market commodity, its price will be “what the traffic will bear”. As long as there is great disparity in purchasing power, that price will be high and there will be homelessness.
Tax policy, which requires localities to finance necessary services through real estate taxes, contributes to the creation of homelessness by raising the cost of providing housing.
Action by government through housing construction and subsidies, as well as by non-government institutions, like housing cooperatives, is necessary to reduce and ultimately eliminate homelessness.