Much of the discussion of this week's election results focuses on the quest for "bipartisanship." As an advocate for homeless people, I'd be happier with a focus on simple sanity.
As played out in recent policy debates in Washington, bipartisanship is simply compromise, deal making and meeting in the middle. If one or both sides are irrational, or focused on fear rather than reason, then simply splitting the difference is unlikely to lead to a reasonable result. And issues that are not politically popular will just be ignored.
The recent Stewart-Colbert rally, with its Sanity vs. Fear tagline, crystallized what to my mind is the real issue: Rather than bipartisanship, what we should strive for is rational, sensible policy, supported by the best evidence available, consistent with our fundamental values.
As founder and director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, I've spent the past 20 plus years working for policies to prevent and end homelessness in America. In my experience, neither party has embraced our cause with vigor, but we've had strong individual allies and supporters in both major parties. Maybe this makes our cause "bipartisan." More likely it simply reflects the reality that without money, access or often, even the right to vote, homeless and poor people are not high on most politicians' priority lists.
In an environment that favors sanity or even just reason and common sense, ending homelessness would be at the top of the agenda.
Homelessness is costly. People with no place to live typically lack adequate nutrition, hygiene facilities, clothing and a place to store or administer necessary medications are at high risk for illness and disease, yet also typically lack access to health care. Emergency rooms become their health care of last resort, at high cost to their health and to taxpayers.
People with no place to live are also likely to live in public places, in the absence of sufficient shelter or other emergency housing. Nationally, there is space for only half of the homeless population. In a misguided effort to "clean up" public spaces, many cities spend money on police and other criminal justice efforts. This makes escaping homelessness harder for homeless people who are targeted by such efforts, and is also costly to tax payers.
This is also where Fear comes in: The fear that homeless people are more prone to commit violent crimes than other people (they're not); fear that visible poverty is bad for business or tourism (it may be but criminalizing it won't work and makes no sense; see sanity, above); fear that but for the grace of God -- it could be anyone sleeping outside. This last one is true: A new poll shows that 53 percent of Americans fear for their ability to make their next rent or mortgage payment.
Studies show that, in strictly dollar terms, permanent housing with social services costs less than simply allowing people to remain homeless. In fact, in many cities it costs less than an emergency shelter.
It's not just about money, of course, it's about human lives -- and basic values. Does anyone really believe it's acceptable for people to be living without a home in the 21st century in the United States of America? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted over 50 years ago under U.S. leadership, counts adequate housing as a basic human right. The Housing Act of 1949 sets adequate housing for all Americans as a goal.
Moving forward in this new political landscape, I'm hoping we'll find support in both political parties. But I'm counting on common sense and basic human decency.
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