We need a better solution for housing instability

How will we respond to the rising unhoused population

An hour’s drive due east of our hometown is a glitzy, glamorous and undeniably gaudy landmark to cinema’s golden age: Hollywood. From the larger-than-life sign overlooking the city to the museum filled with wax imitations of movie stars, every nook and cranny of Tinseltown is supposed to ooze ostentation.  

A cultural icon on the level of New York’s Big Apple and France’s City of Light, Hollywood invokes images of ludicrous wealth and dazzling celebrity. But underneath the gilded surface, Hollywood hides a historically horrific homelessness problem, a small part of a city home to over 60,000 people living without stable housing.

Hollywood’s problem reflects an issue the entire country has been facing in recent years; we are not effectively providing low-income people with safe, reliable and affordable housing. In other words, there are way, way, way too many Americans without houses.

To be more precise, nearly 600,000 Americans lack stable housing today. The number is only growing due to our unwillingness to nationalize industries that provide essential services, the country’s growing wealth inequality and a callous government response. We cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of the unhoused, and we must be willing to adopt sweeping systemic changes to craft a more equitable society.

There is no getting around the fact that when prompted, private businesses will never fail to prioritize profit over people. For example, private rehab centers and mental health clinics, services that many unhoused people require to survive, are happy to forgo the necessary treatment in hopes of extracting profit from the people who need them most.

Tamara Beetham and a team of researchers at Yale University have been studying private addiction care practices, and their insights help shine a light on how we are placing our trust in the wrong hands. “Despite the high price tag” of many drug rehabilitation programs, Beetham’s team found that “most programs don’t provide evidence-based care using medications such as buprenorphine and methadone.

We’re playing with human lives, and when we put people in charge of solving our crises who care more about putting dollars in their shareholders’ pockets than making a meaningful difference, we are making a grave mistake. A robust infrastructure of well-funded public services designed to put people over profit is essential in providing unhoused people the aid and support they need to better their situation.

Additionally, the ultra-wealthy are not paying nearly their fair share to fund services for the collective betterment of Americans struggling with housing, instead opting to hoard their inordinate capital. As of 2022, about 70% of American wealth was concentrated in the hands of the top 10% of income earners. That leaves the other 90% of income earners, around 300 million Americans, fighting for a piece of the pie less than half the size of that which the slim minority at the top owns.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing and the California Housing Partnership estimate that it would cost around $81 billion to solve California’s housing crisis; this may sound like an unfathomably high price tag, but to put it in perspective, it’s only about half of an Elon Musk. Musk, one of the 735 billionaires living in the United States, could house the 70,000 unhoused Californians twice over and still have billions left to buy all the mega yachts and private islands he could ever desire. While the rich play a significant role in the continuing epidemic of housing scarcity, they are not the only ones consistently failing the unhoused population.

Our government’s response to growing unhoused populations has been to promote efforts to incarcerate and further dehumanize people struggling to find consistent shelter. The government’s focus seems to be driving unhoused people out of sight and out of mind. 

Hostile architecture is erected to prevent them from sleeping in public spaces, and vagrancy is criminalized, allowing people living in public places to be charged with a crime if they fail to obtain proper permission. Whatever federal aid programs do exist are often either insufficiently funded or come with strings attached.

This philosophy that positions the existence of unhoused people as the issue, rather than the system’s inability to provide them with means of sheltering themselves, reduces human life to an inconvenience and is responsible for the immense aura of suffering that cities emit like smog. 

A lack of a house to come home to every night is not a personal failure. It’s a societal issue that requires collective action to solve. The government and local community organizations must work together to address the root causes of housing insecurity while providing the support and resources people living on the streets need to survive. This could include mental health support, addiction treatment services, job training programs and addressing discrimination and bias in housing and employment. 

But honestly, to make any sort of meaningful difference in the housing instability epidemic, we need to rebuild our economy from the ground up, nationalizing essential industries and working to redistribute wealth. As long as there is an economic incentive to keep people on the streets, corporations and lawmakers will conspire to do just enough to appear as if they care about improving the lives of the unhoused without actually solving the issue.