Those of us of a certain age can actually recall that homelessness was not a widespread problem back in the 1970s and the decades prior.
Back then, it was much smaller and manageable, mostly confined to skid row areas in urban centers. Kids like me grew up having never seen a homeless person.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s when homelessness suddenly erupted into a national epidemic, due to policies enacted by President Reagan and then continued by subsequent administrations – policies that destroyed the safety net for poor and working classes at a time when it was needed more than ever.
Now in this era of COVID-19, with 8 million people behind on their rent and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end the CDC’s moratorium on evictions, the “tsunami of evictions” that economists have been warning about is underway.
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This will undoubtedly lead to a burgeoning of the homeless population – and that will be on top of the epidemic that already exists.
Homeless has been wrongly portrayed for years
For years, the news media, as well as mass entertainment, completely missed the mark when it comes to homelessness – depicting it as being caused by mental illness, addiction or some other supposed deficiencies. Countless media reports, TV shows and even notable films such as “The Fisher King” – though often well intentioned – have served to promote these myths.
(Bravo to Chloe Zhao for last year’s Oscar-winning film “Nomadland,” in which she and her fellow filmmakers accurately portrayed homelessness.)
Portraying homelessness as the problem of those with supposed deficiencies is misleading, and it’s part of the reason why so little has been done to solve the problem. Blaming a social problem on the “defects” of those victimized by it only serves to divert attention from the societal causes of the problem and to provide policymakers an excuse for taking no meaningful action.
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So let’s take on the myths. According to most research, the mentally ill and drug addicted account for only about one quarter of the homeless population. By comparison, families with children make up one third and are the fastest growing segment.
Poverty, not mental health or addiction, is root cause
And as for those who do struggle with these problems, it is still poverty – not these personal afflictions – that is the root cause of their homelessness.
Consider this: Millions of Americans in the “housed” population struggle with addiction and mental illness – but those with financial resources typically don’t end up homeless, do they? It’s only when you’re poor that these afflictions land you on the street.
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If we could magically cure addiction and mental illness in the homeless population overnight, it would hardly make a dent in the problem.
That’s because the causes of homelessness lie in changes that have occurred in our society over the past decades – specifically, the disappearance of affordable housing, the replacement of higher paying manufacturing jobs with low-paying service jobs and the gutting of social programs for the poor.
Will we now tackle injustice for real?
All the focus these days on social justice is such a positive development in our country.
But so far, homelessness has not been a part of those discussions, with people instead viewing it as a problem for charity to address. Even many on the left who understand issues of power and injustice as it relates to race, gender, and sexual orientation, have a huge blind spot when it comes to socioeconomic class.
The poorest of the poor no longer have a right to housing in our country. If that isn’t a social justice issue, what is?
Susan Yeich, Ph.D., is a social sciences researcher and author of “The Politics of Ending Homelessness.” She lives in Pima County. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AUTHOR: Susan Yeich