Homelessness, State Street, and Democratic Values

Core Societal Values Are Reflected in Actions About Homelessness


Two recent stories in the Santa Barbara Independent about homelessness made provocative reading separately, and even more when taken together.

“ … at a public meeting just bursting to happen … the … room designed for overflow crowds was overflowing. … With the plethora of vacant storefronts [on State Street], it’s hardly a new concern … ” “Making State Street Great Again”

“[R]eal estate investor Dick Berti … has long lambasted City Hall for allowing homeless people to gather on State Street … He vowed to spend $100,000 to help move the homeless to a location near County Jail. (That location falls outside the city’s jurisdiction … )” Ibid

“What is desired is an ‘out of sight out of mind’ policy. This suits politicians well in fact. Not having to address the issue of who is homeless, what is the alternative to homelessness, how did the people become homeless, where do the homeless live, and where do the homeless come from, means that these places can pretend that none of ‘the homeless’ have a claim on [the resources of these places] and none of their activities have created homelessness.” “A Political Season for Homelessness”

Both tell it as it is, accurately reflecting the same reality but taking very different views both of how the problems they deal with should be seen and what should be done about them.

The first two quotes describe the problem in strictly economic terms, and their recommendations are from the point of view of those in the business of real estate and who, appropriately, are making a profit in it. The third is written from the point of view of a former public official charged with defending those penalized for private actions having to do with homelessness, primarily within the judicial system.

The argument that follows is not that any of the views presented are factually wrong or inappropriately reflect the interests motivating their expression. It is, rather, that these views do not take a broad enough look at the entire problem of homelessness as issues of social justice. They also do not consider the goals of public policy generally in a democratic and constitutionally value-laden political system. These are not partisan political values but ones that are core to our society: Our foundational documents include reference to key values: ” … all men are created equal … establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare … ”

The economic argument of the first two is not in fact concerned with the homeless at all, with their welfare, their rights, or their impact on domestic tranquility or the common welfare. Instead, it looks only at how the presence of the homeless may affect others, in basically economic terms. Such matters are indeed legitimate concerns of public policy, but they are surely not its only concerns, and arguably should not be its primary concerns. If all men — including all women, all races, all ethnicities, all sexual orientations — are to be treated equally, the impact of any governmental measure on their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness must be a major point for democratic consideration and decision making.

Getting the homeless out of sight so they will be out of mind directly impacts the ability of a community to balance interests in the way that democratic politics require. If the homeless are banished from the streets, they would be herded in remote ghettos of their own — and these would surely be ghettos in the ethnic and racial sense, for the statistics are conclusive about the disparate extent to which the homeless belong to unequal groups that are already underserved. These would be ghettos in the bleak traditional sense of the term.

What is startling, however, among these quotes is that they limit the issue to what should be done to and with and perhaps for the homeless, and lack attention to what creates homelessness itself in the first place. Specifically, the third comment raises the key point that “out of sight out of mind” avoids any impetus to consider alternatives to homelessness. In particular, does “out of sight out of mind policy,” by in effect ousting the homeless from the public domain, permit us to suppress the question of whether or not those in charge are, in their own interests, burying the question of whether “their activities have created homelessness” itself?

In politics, such an approach to social issues is often called “Blame the Victims”: It’s their own fault that the homeless are homeless; they’re shiftless, lazy, self-centered, uneducated, people who drink, smoke whenever they can get a butt, hopeless incompetents, disproportionately mentally ill and certainly morally depraved, deplorable, yes; but what can you do, acting out of sympathy for them is unrealistic and neglects the simple fact that the homeless are homeless because they can’t or don’t want to take care of themselves and are willing to live on other’s handouts.

Yet the actual causes of homelessness are not obscure. First among them is the simple fact of a shortage of adequate housing priced at what they are able to pay within the current labor market. While a few public programs directly recognize that fact and begin to address it — programs such as public housing, inclusionary housing, construction subsidies, vouchers, and financial assistance for home ownership — they are grossly underfunded, today increasingly so with the new federal budget. Even within their own parameters, they have been shown to be regressively distributed.

Yet we know why there is a shortage of affordable housing. It has to do with a number of factors:

• The high cost and limited availability of land suitable for residential use;

• Zoning rules that allocate land uses and building possibilities based on market prices, ensuring profits to land owners and distribution on the basis of exchange rather than use value;

• The abandonment of available housing that is no longer profitable;

• The gentrification of communities displacing lower-income residents in favor of higher-income ones;

• Racism and social discrimination limiting opportunities disproportionately affecting those in need, including the homeless;

• The political weakness of the homeless themselves, limiting their ability to make their voices and needs known in the political arena;

• Public policies diminishing awareness of the nature and extent of homelessness, such as those aimed at pushing its realities out of sight and out of mind, such as those considered here.

And there is much that can be done that is not being done:

• Expansion of the needed housing supply, with major funding of public programs addressing housing shortages mentioned above: public housing, housing vouchers, financial aids for financing

• Provision of needed public services, from appropriate security to health care (mental and physical) to all levels of education;

• Provision of infrastructure making more housing possible, including transportation and transportation facilities, sanitation services, environmental protections;

• Inclusionary housing and zoning measures;

• Anti-discrimination laws;

• Adjusting the real property tax system to serve social ends, facilitating provision of affordable housing;

• Anti-eviction legislation; no eviction if no alternate available;

• Formation of an Homelessness Prevention Work Group within city and state governments;

• Recognition of a Right to Housing, embracing many suggestions of existing advocacy groups and focusing attention on the desired end goals of many often disconnected public efforts.

Ironically, there is at least one possibility that might positively affect both the State Street vacancies and the need for affordable housing. If we have vacant buildings looking for occupants and residents looking for vacant buildings to occupy, can’t these two situations be brought together to help solve both problems? Use the vacancies for housing. And ensure it’s housing for diverse groups, including homeless, who would be able to fill jobs and provide a market for other businesses traditionally on State Street as well? A solid demand from some meets a solid supply from others; maybe there really are some solutions.

And, ultimately, recognition of three simple and obvious facts, often pushed out of sight in political discussions:

• Affordability of housing is an income as well a cost issue, and low wages, unemployment, inhibitions on union organizing, and low or unenforced minimum wage laws all degrade income.

• All these issues are local, but homelessness is not just a local problem, and only the federal government has the resources necessary to combat it effectively.

• “Solving the Housing Problem,” ending rather than just ameliorating homelessness, is a controversial proposition, inevitably involving some redistribution of resources and conflicts of interest.

But to really get a grip on the related problems, State Street vacancies and homelessness, putting the homeless out of sight and ignoring the alternatives to deal with its causes is exactly the wrong way to go.

Peter Marcuse is professor emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University, newly transplanted to Santa Barbara.

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