It’s visible on the streets of most major U.S. cities, has been for decades, and costs the government billions of dollars a year. But none of the people running for president seem to be speaking about it. Politicians and pundits don’t talk about homelessness like they talk about Donald Trump’s insults or Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The Obama administration prioritized veterans, one group within the U.S. homeless population, in its plan to end chronic homelessness nationally by 2017. In August, federal and Connecticut officials announced that the state had become the first to do so among U.S. veterans.
With 14 months to go until the 2016 presidential election, candidates are regularly referring to the United States’ dwindling middle class and income and wealth inequality, while others continue to rail against the financial elite and the 1 percent. But few are speaking explicitly on the campaign trail about perhaps the most jarring manifestation of poverty.
“A few candidates have talked about the distribution of wealth and the need to grow the middle class, but homelessness is as invisible in these discussions as it is visible on the streets,” Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project, told The National Memo.
Nearly 580,000 people experience homelessness in the United States on any given night, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But with only 18.3 per 10,000 Americans in the general population directly affected, the issue is off the radar for most people — including candidates.
Advocates said that they did not expect homelessness to become a major campaign issue in the 2016 presidential race, but they do see hope in the fact that some candidates are talking about economic inequality.
Part of the reason homelessness is absent from the national conversation is that many think of it as a local issue, one that mayors can campaign on, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Americans, he added, don’t usually think of the president as the elected official responsible for getting people into housing.
Even so, advocates have suggested, the progress made in some U.S. cities and Connecticut on chronic veterans’ homelessness could be a politically viable way to present the issue to American voters.
As more cities report that they’ve ended that situation, Berg said it could get more public exposure as a social problem that can be solved. “Some candidate is going to figure out that this is an opportunity to get him or herself associated with something really good. Maybe,” he added.
William Burnett, a board member of the advocacy organization Picture the Homeless, and a formerly homeless veteran living in New York City, said he got housing in March due to his status as a veteran.
“It’s easier to sell the political will to address veteran homelessness than it is to address the homelessness of other people,” Burnett told The National Memo. He said he appreciated the fact that he was able to get housing, but said people who hadn’t served in the military also need help.
“I would like to see some of these candidates addressing [homelessness] during the campaign process,” added Burnett, who volunteered for Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003. Policy makers and candidates, Burnett said, should listen to those with the most expertise on homelessness — currently and formerly homeless people — in order to come up with creative solutions to get people housed.
Homelessness is “a national nexus for so many other issues that candidates talk about,” said Jake Maguire, a spokesperson at Community Solutions, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities address homelessness. He cited income inequality, jobs, and affordable housing, among other social and economic issues related to homelessness.
The Obama administration put a spotlight on the issue of veteran homelessness, Maguire said. Now, it can be “an entry point” to politicians speaking about addressing homelessness more broadly.
National Problem, Local Success
In New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, on August 27, President Obama touted the progress the city has made in “fighting poverty” and “supporting our homeless veterans.”
“New Orleans has become a model for the nation as … the first major city to end veterans’ homelessness, which is a remarkable achievement,” the president said.
In addition to Connecticut and New Orleans, cities including Phoenix and Salt Lake City announced that they have eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans, and Houston reported in June that the city has effectively housed all of its homeless vets.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronic homelessness “as an individual or family with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”
Even though a small minority of Americans experiences homelessness firsthand, advocates say it’s a social issue voters should care about because their tax dollars fund the government programs aimed at addressing homelessness, whether they’re effective or not.
Between shelter costs, emergency room visits, mental health services, drug treatment, Medicaid, food stamps, and other benefits, it costs the government between $35,000 and $150,000 per year for one person living on the streets. And ultimately, the people receiving these benefits do not get the one they really need: a place to live.
“We as taxpayers spend [on average] 40 percent more to keep people homeless than to house them,” Maguire said. Annual per-person savings for cities that choose to offer homeless people housing vary by location, from $54,086 in Jacksonville, Florida, to $46,900 in Los Angeles, to $15,772 in Denver.
Some cities, including Salt Lake City, have found so-called “housing first” strategies to be both ethical and cost-effective in transitioning people from shelters or the streets to their own housing.
While some taxpayers may question why they should pay for someone else’s housing, and argue that homeless people are without shelter because of drug or alcohol abuse, not wanting to work or some other personal choice, the reality is that many people are homeless due to a lack of affordable housing and poverty.
In addition, Maguire said, “housing is actually the platform of stability” from which people can gain access to drug treatment programs, job training, and mental health care.
Other advocates agreed: It’s hard to maintain a job when you are sleeping on the streets.
On The Streets, Off The Campaign Trail
As far as political constituencies go, homeless people don’t have the loudest voice. Most people without shelter are likely not donating to any candidates’ campaigns, and certainly not to Super PACs. Furthermore, the homeless experience unique barriers to exercising their right to vote. Without a mailing address, it may be difficult to receive your voter registration card or information about your polling site.
So while 2016 candidates are talking about income and wealth inequality, creating jobs, raising the minimum wage, developing more affordable housing, and providing greater access to health care, they have only discussed homelessness indirectly or in passing, if at all.
The advocates interviewed for this piece mentioned Bernie Sanders as the candidate most likely to speak about homelessness on the campaign trail.
Back in March, on a visit to San Francisco before he had declared his candidacy, Sanders said the city deserved credit for “consistently being one of the most progressive cities in the United States.” But the Vermont senator said the homelessness that is evident on the streets of San Francisco was emblematic of “a systemic failure being ignored by both political leadership and media,” according to The San Francisco Chronicle.
“I know this has been a long-term problem in this great city, but what is hard for many Americans to deal with is the fact that we were led to believe we were a vibrant democracy — but in many ways we are moving to an oligarchic society,” Sanders said. “Ninety-nine percent of all new income today generated is going to the top 1 percent. Does that sound anything vaguely resembling the kind of society we want to be living in?”
Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley’s campaign told The National Memo he has addressed homelessness on the campaign trail, and while he served as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. While campaigning in Iowa on July 4, candidates were asked by The Des Moines Register how they best demonstrated patriotism in their lives. O’Malley said his patriotism was shown in “the form of service to others — especially the most vulnerable and voiceless among us: the poor, the sick, the homeless, the hungry and the imprisoned.”
In June, O’Malley discussed the need for a more coordinated strategy to promote affordable housing, mental and physical health care, addiction treatment, and “putting housing first” in order to address homelessness, according to O’Malley’s campaign.
The campaigns of Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson did not respond to an email asking whether they planned to discuss homelessness, or had a policy plan to address homelessness nationally. The campaigns of Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also did not respond to requests for comment.
One reason candidates rarely talk about poverty and homelessness specifically, the California Homeless Youth Project’s Hyatt said, is simple: Financial struggles are often foreign to them.
“Unfortunately, people who tend to run for public office have grown up middle class or better, and are therefore out of touch with the urgent crisis of homelessness in our country.”
Photo: Homeless people sleeping in Washington Square Park in New York City, (Kevin Christopher Burke via Flickr)