Homelessness is Society's Cancer
An Isolated Incident?
In 2009 I moved to Beaverton, Oregon, to begin a new teaching job. I packed up my belongings, made the 100 mile trek, unloaded it all into my new apartment, and then headed out to get acquainted with my new home city.
I remember driving around for a couple hours, taking a mental picture of the road system, memorizing the location of some stores I would need to shop at, and just collecting first impressions of Beaverton.
It was, and still is, a clean city. Obviously the city fathers believe that cleanliness is next to godliness, and they take litter seriously.
After driving for about fifteen minutes, I was struck with the fact that I had not seen any homeless people. Strange, I thought, because I came from Olympia, Washington, and the homeless there are very visible. Where could they all be? How is it possible that I have not seen one homeless person?
When I got back to my apartment I asked this question of my landlady, and to my complete shock she informed me that Beaverton does not allow homelessness.
Beaverton does not allow homelessness!
She went on to explain that a law was passed several years earlier, forbidding the homeless within city limits. The citizens had decided that homeless people were bad for business.
Bad for business!
Naively I believed this to be an isolated incident.
I was wrong.
Not Isolated at All
Homeless legislation exists in quite a few cities across the United States. They all fall somewhere under these general guidelines: to prohibit activities such as sleeping, camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, to include criminal penalties for violation of these laws.
Typically the criminal penalties are fines; at times, they include incarceration.
So far, appeals courts have not agreed with these homeless laws. In 2006 the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a case involving the city of Los Angeles and their criminalization of homelessness, ruled as follows: “the city could not expressly criminalize the status of homelessness by making it a crime to be homeless without violating the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, nor can it criminalize acts that are an integral aspect of that status. Because there is substantial and undisputed evidence that the number of homeless persons in Los Angeles far exceeds the number of available shelter beds at all times, Los Angeles has encroached upon Appellants” Eighth Amendment protections.”
But cities keep trying.
In 2007, Boston took action to keep loiterers, including the homeless, off the Boston Common overnight. In 2012, a federal district judge in Philadelphia ruled that laws prohibiting serving food to the homeless outdoors were unconstitutional.
The very nature of homelessness makes it impossible to accurately assess the numbers who are homeless. The current statistics are as follows:
Number of homeless in the United States: 1,750,000
Percentage that do not get enough to eat daily: 28%
Percent of homeless with addiction problems: 66%
Percent of homeless who have been homeless for at least two years: 30%
Percent of homeless that are Veterans: 40%
Percent of homeless who are male: 44%
Percent of homeless who are female: 13%
Percent of homeless who are children: 36%
Percent of homeless who are African-American: 50%
Percent of homeless who are white: 35%
Percent of homeless who are Hispanic: 12%
What Should We Do?
I am not insensitive to those who argue that homelessness is bad for business. I understand business owners being concerned when the homeless camp out on sidewalks and make it difficult for customers to enter stores.
I also understand the health issues involved. I am sympathetic to city leaders who say that there are health concerns when the homeless are unsanitary, that public urination and defecation is a major problem. There is no doubt that it is.
How is the problem solved by issuing fines to the homeless? How is the problem solved by jailing the homeless?
I am a fairly logical person, and I simply cannot see how issuing fines will eliminate the problem. This is like telling a cancer patient to take two aspirin and get more sleep…it might alleviate the symptoms for a few hours, but the cancer still remains. This type of reactionary solution only perpetuates the problem, and I don’t know of anyone who wishes to see this problem continue.
The Cost of Homelessness
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, homeless people spent an average of four days longer per hospital visit than non-homeless people, an extra cost of approximately $2,414 per visit. The rate of psychiatric hospitalization is over 100 times higher than for non-homeless.
Homelessness both causes and is the result of serious health care issues, including addiction, psychological disorders, HIV/AIDS, and other ailments. The inability to treat normal health problems aggravates these problems, leading to more costly remedies and care.
It is a fact that the homeless spend more time in jail and prison, which obviously is an added expense at the local, state, and federal level. According to a University of Texas two-year survey of homeless individuals, each person cost the taxpayers $14,480 per year, mostly for overnight jail. A typical bed in prison will cost a state approximately $20,000 per year.
The cost of emergency shelters must also be considered when discussing the cost of homelessness. Interestingly, an emergency shelter bed funded by HUD’s Emergency Shelter Grants program is about $8,067 more than the average annual cost of a federal housing subsidy.
And finally, the homeless do not contribute to society, so we add the cost of no productivity to the total. Imagine if those 1.75 million people were productive members of society. Imagine how that would help the economy.
But Rather Talking About Cost, Let’s Talk About This…..
These are human beings.
They are not statistics. They were born as you were. They had dreams as you had. They feel pain as you do. They are made of bones, muscles, ligaments, skin, and blood, as you are.
These are human beings.
Put aside the discussions about costs for a moment. Put aside the arguments about the homeless being an eyesore, and bad for business, and unsanitary, and just for one moment reach into your heart and allow your humanity to surface.
These are human beings.
Do not tell me that the most powerful nation on earth cannot provide jobs for an additional 1.75 million people.
Do not tell me that the only solution is the one that has failed miserably since day one.
And please, do not tell me that these human beings are not worth the effort.
That would simply be beneath you.
These are human beings, and as long as they are ignored….as long as they are fined and then ushered to the city limits….as long as they are looked down upon as less than human…..
Then shame on all of us.
What Is the Solution?
Stop giving aspirin to 1.75 million cancer patients.
The economic reality is that if permanent housing were provided in every major city in America, money would be saved.
The economic reality is that if the economy was healthy, and jobs made available, money would not only be saved but the economy would benefit.
The moral reality is that the supposedly greatest nation on earth, one founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, has failed miserably to uphold its promise.
Shame on all of us.
This problem will not magically go away by sweeping it under the rug. It is going to continue to fester and grow, and the costs will increase. It is time for proactive actions and not bandages on an open wound.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
God bless America!
It is time for us to live up to those words.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)