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The Urgent National Crisis That Presidential Candidates Aren’t Talking About

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The Urgent National Crisis That Presidential Candidates Aren’t Talking About


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.

Burnett also said it costs more to keep a homeless person on the streets, than to pay for their housing. “If you want to bring the budget down, let’s find a cheaper way.”

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)



  1. Dominick Vila September 5, 2015

    I will never forget the shock I felt the first time I visited Washington DC in the early 1970s and saw homeless people sleeping on the street a couple of blocks from the White House. As a minimum, we should build facilities to provide shelter for the homeless and, preferably, include meals and medical care for them. Many are people afflicted by mental illness, including veterans. The fact that this exists, and nobody seems to care or be willing to do something about it says more about our society and our values, than the contributing factors to this unacceptable situation. If we have money to build a NAVY as large as all the navies of the world combined, if we can afford loopholes and subsidies to corporations or people who don’t need them, we can afford to help those who cannot help themselves.

  2. 1standlastword September 5, 2015

    I’m not impressed about anything a candidate might say about homelessness while s/he is campaigning but better what they’ve said since long before they started campaigning

    It appears once again the Independent Democratic Socialist outshines his less socially conscience counterparts and of course republicans are off the radar

    Bernie 2016!

  3. suzanne.rfost September 6, 2015

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  4. charleo1 September 6, 2015

    Solving, or I should say, alleviating the problem of homelessness is both as simple as conceding that poverty is increasing. And as frustratingly complex as acknowledging something as fundamental as our ability to address the mental heath concerns of millions of people in this Country, is almost nonexistent. To face the reality that we don’t treat the impoverished mentally ill in this Country anymore. We wait until their illness manifests itself into some prosecutable offense. Then we warehouse them in jails for a time, where their illness deepens. And then we summarily dump them back out on the streets, where they cannot logically be expected but to reoffend. And this is not people just falling thru the cracks. We do this as a matter of policy. Why we do this, I believe boils down to a collective decision we’ve made as a Country over the years. That people who’ve shown themselves to be defective, have a criminal record, a drug dependency problem, a psychosis of some kind, just aren’t worth the, “investment,” to fix, and are therefore disposable. The truth is, we have developed a very callous attitude toward the poor, as life has gotten tougher for the vast majority. Policing the World is far more sexy, than addressing multi-layered social problems like homelessness. For which there will never be a victory to brag about on the campaign trail. Only an opponent than will probably demagogue any effort to help the poor, as encouraging the growing problem of gov. dependency. Then too, the mentally ill, and the drug dependent, don’t usually vote. And the destitute often have no acceptable address, no current ID to register to vote, if they so decided to do so. And so, to the politician, they are invisible. And another cold winter is upon us. Millions are on our streets. We must all remember the homeless, and listen our better angels.

    1. plc97477 September 7, 2015

      Thank you reagan.

  5. groversyck September 6, 2015

    The gutless blunders on the right do not have enough sense to acknowledge that the problem exist, let alone try to do something about it.

  6. Eleanore Whitaker September 7, 2015

    Beneath all of their “CONservatism” lies a very serious problem with how CONs want to manage tax revenues. Their ideas are showing an all too clear picture of people who believe that we must support businesses by handing them nearly every available tax dollar. But, the dirtier secret is that when they defund programs or underfund programs like the EPA, FEMA and other, they know they are downsizing government as their Libertarian regime demands to levels so small it forces us to pay for infrastructure, education and other primary needs out of state taxes …ours, not their. This is their constant cry, pay for it out of pocket or out of your state taxes.

    Herein lies the problem. The conservatives are anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-labor and anti-reform. They push for a majority in the House because that way they can flush FEDERAL tax dollars to their state industries and then, they don’t have to take one dime out of THEIR state taxes. You are paying to keep their military, gun manufacturing, prison and big oil industries existing with your FEDERAL tax dollars. They only invest in industries they know you will contribute to with FEDERAL tax dollars.

    All while we struggle to pay FEDERAL and STATE taxes for our our states needs. But they’ll tell you that it’s irresponsible to expect the government to pay for what your states need. Just not irresponsible when they get 65% of all FEDERAL taxes from your hard earned incomes.

    It’s long past time for Republican states to stop being FEDERAL welfare states living off the rest of our states.

    We pay taxes for our military’s needs with hundreds of billions and now the GOP is telling you to contribute to Veteran charities to help these vets. This is the Bush way…he stated back in 2003, that he believed we should all volunteer and donate to charities for the needy. Sure. So not one dime of Federal taxes is spent for these purposes. Which, makes tons of revenues for Republican states and their glut of FEDERAL tax subsidies.

    Some reason Alaskans need to get $1200 tax subsidies for every man, woman and child living in that state plus tens of billions for their oil and fishing industries? Some reason the House GOP voted to hand Big Oil $15 billion in tax subsidies to Big Rich Texas, That Whole Other Country that can’t keep its dirty mitts off FEDERAL tax dollars?

    The reality is that the GOP wants all of your taxes for their states. While they tell you to pay out of pocket or out of state taxes for your states’ needs.

  7. paulyz September 7, 2015

    Again blaming the Conservatives for failed Liberal/Socialist policies. Obama, with mostly total Democrat control, increased the spending & National Debt IMMENSELY, but poverty increased IMMENSELY as well. The real “crisis” is this debt they caused, the long-term unemployment, plus bad trade policies & high corporate taxes/regulations, that force businesses to leave or go bankrupt. Add to this, shelling Billions in unemployment benefits without job training, while allowing Millions of Illegals to remain here to take jobs.

    1. 13factfinder September 9, 2015


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