We are better than this

March 18, 2019

As a hard winter draws to a close in America, news reports can be found throughout our land about homeless people who froze to death. The face of homelessness is visible everywhere in our wealthy country, and the problem will get worse if the Trump administration obtains any part of the billion dollar cuts it has requested to the Housing and Urban Development Department’s budget.

For the third year in a row the President and his administration are pushing for billions more in bloated military spending and billions more for a wall the majority of Americans do not want, one that would wreak environmental havoc, while continuously seeking budget cuts that will increase the homeless problem in the U.S.

The United States has had a long history with periods of homelessness. Being a hobo had its roots in the early history of the country when men took to the rails looking for work. Jack Kerouac, the American novelist of French Canadian heritage, somewhat glorified the concept with his book, On the Road, about hitch-hiking and traveling in search of adventure.

Kerouac’s book, published in 1957, came after memories had begun to fade of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl that left many people in America homeless between 1929 and 1939. It wasn’t until World War II that all of America truly got back to work. After that war, homelessness was a small problem in America until 1981 when Ronald Reagan became president of the United States.

I have never understood the hero worship that exists out there in certain circles for Reagan, a man whose governmental policies laid the foundation for the homeless problem that continues to this day. Reagan also led the tax revision process that has been a major contributor to the transfer of wealth in America and the ongoing decline of America’s middle class (see the Shelterforce Report dated May 1, 2004).

From my perspective, Reagan was a champion for the rich and not much more as his policies did little to benefit the majority of Americans. His legendary disconnect with the problems of people who were low income also bears a striking resemblance to our current President.

Trump’s administration has been intent upon fostering the same misguided policies. The tax cuts last year mostly benefited the rich and corporations and are not delivering the promised economic benefits, while the national debt is skyrocketing. Couple that with the proposed budget cuts to H.U.D., and one can see the writing on the wall. If Congress were to buy into any of this malarkey, be prepared to see Trump add to Reagan’s legacy of forcing people onto the streets.

During Reagan’s first year in office the Federal Government slashed 50% of the funds that had been provided for public housing and rent subsidies. Funds were also drastically cut for facilities that housed the mentally ill (again, refer to the Shelterforce Article). Available beds in state mental hospitals also dropped drastically in the 1980s.

Benefits for the mentally ill like SSI income were cut and were made more difficult to receive, as mentally ill people were deinstitutionalized. Added to that pressure was the ongoing destruction of urban housing in areas throughout the country where the poor typically lived. Urban revitalization was occurring, but low cost housing was not being built to replace the units that were lost, and this problem persists to this day.

Lo and behold, this combination of factors gave rise to a massive increase in homeless people throughout America, and the blame lies solidly with Federal Government policies. After enacting those kind of changes, Reagan even had the audacity to call homelessness a lifestyle choice.

Odd isn’t it that this so-called lifestyle choice wasn’t a significant problem in America until Reagan’s administration introduced massive cuts to government housing support. Remember how Americans were promised that tax revisions would lead to a trickle down benefit for everyone if we gave more money to the wealthy class?

It’s time to recognize that Americans were sold a pile of horse manure by a B grade actor who was a talented orator. His destructive ideology didn’t help the majority of Americans then, and the impacts from the policies his government initiated are still damaging our society.

There are those who fantasize about the romantic notion of an open road filled with adventure and no cares, but let’s get real. The reality of life for the homeless is far from the adventurous state Kerouac glamorized in his book and hardly a voluntary choice for most people.

The recent government shutdown revealed how perilously close many employed people are to becoming homeless in America. The reality for many citizens is that a turn of unfortunate circumstances could render them homeless. Ask yourself how many people you know that live from paycheck to paycheck. The cuts proposed by this administration, if enacted, would force more people onto the streets, and it might be someone you know.

California has one-fourth of the homeless people in America, and the majority of them are unsheltered at night. New York has the second highest rate of homelessness, but government action there has created nighttime shelters. Numerous studies indicate the key problem is a lack of affordable housing — not surprising in either state. Note also that most homeless people originate from the areas where they are found; they are not wandering to California for the nice weather (for information about the homeless see The Conversation Report dated June 14, 2018).

The reality for homeless people, particularly those living unsheltered, is one of lack of access to toilets, sinks and showers. There is no way to properly prepare or store food, and the risk of spreading communicable diseases increases when people are unsheltered. Obtaining proper medical care and basic communication are all problematic when you lack a permanent home.

Given the adverse conditions the homeless face, the vast majority would choose a solid roof over their head with a working toilet and a kitchen (the choice they made when adequate housing support existed). I have slept in tents during warm weather with plenty of fancy camping equipment, and the joy of that lifestyle wears off pretty quickly even while on vacation.

Our Federal Government created the problem we have with homelessness, and there’s no excuse for letting it continue or grow in a country with our wealth. It is morally bankrupt for the Trump administration to toss billions more at a bloated military and a useless wall, while seeking further cuts to housing support.

We need to increase the focus on providing proper housing support where needed in America (shelters are not the long-term solution), and work to add adequate facilities and resources to help the mentally ill. It is shameful that anyone freezes to death on the “gold-paved” streets of America. We are better than this.

Jesse Robison is a Pocatello native who has lived in Mexico and other places. He was educated at Idaho State University and University of Idaho. Robison works as a mediator and insurance law consultant, but his passion is public art. He has spearheaded numerous art improvements throughout Pocatello, including the Japanese garden located at Pocatello Regional Airport, and he serves on the Bistline Foundation. Robison currently resides in Pocatello.