How did we get in this homeless mess?

January 5th, 2021 by Ken

Homelessness  in the shape we see it today, didn’t just appear overnight.  It has been coming for a long time and slowly worked its way into a situation which has over-whelmed social and government agencies.

Homelessness has always been with us, particularly since the days of the Industrial Revolution.  There’s a great deal of blame to place on many actions of government which forced this issue upon us.  But in modern society, the digital revolution and misplaced activities of well meaning people all play a role.

During the Industrial Revolution workers began moving from the farm into the big cities, Homeless was always a problem.  As long as people stayed on the farm, homeless was not something most people thought of.  But, as the movement to the cities began to take place in the 18th Century, homelessness began to make itself known.

In the United States, the consumption of alcohol in significant amounts by the general public began to affect a growing number of users.  We saw this throughout American history with the Skid Rows and the Flop Houses and the alcoholics laying in the streets.   But the problem was ignored until the passage, in 1919, of the 18th Amendment banning the sale and distribution of alcohol.  This well-intentioned action ignored the number of casual drinkers who also wanted access to their evening drink.  The result of course led to an increase in crime, an increase in drinking and an increase in social problems.  Approval of the 21st Amendment in 1933 repealed the ban on alcohol.  But by then, the damage had been done.

It wasn’t the last time a government policy or procedure, while well-intentioned, would worsen a problem it was designed to solve.

Following World War II, American society began to change.  The war had needed women in the workplace and left many children to fend for themselves during the process.  When the war ended, women returned back to the homes.   The resultant Baby Boom and the increase in the number of children in the community led to a desire to make communities better and safer. Parents began to look to government to do just that.

With an increase in children and the resultant demand for housing, a major home building boom began.  Millions of single-family homes were built in the decades of the 50’s, 60’s and into the 70’s.  This rapid increase in houses began to make itself felt in cities.  Government felt forced to take some control over growth.  They began to put in place zoning ordinances which restricted where growth should occur.  This increased the cost of available land.  They also began to approve measures to make the houses safer.  The restrictive rules and regulations began to add to the cost of building houses.

Restrictive government rules made the cost of undeveloped property more expensive.  Banks make loans for builders based on the cost of the property.  Increases in the cost of property required builders to build larger and more expensive homes if they wanted a bank loan.

The decision of government in the 1980 to make growth pay for growth, resulted in housing impact fees which also significantly contributed to increases in home prices.

With millions of young people exploring their world,  the drug culture exploded. Many experimented  with drugs in the 60’s and the increase in drug distribution from organized criminal gangs took hold in the United States in the 70’s.  Drugs were cheap and plentiful.  In an effort to get control of the problem city and states instituted harsh penalties for possession of controlled substances.  Our jails filled with thousands of youth.  The result was a generation of young people with a criminal record and little way of making a living upon release except through the skills they learned in prison.

Government began to see the negative results of their war on drugs and turned to the pharmaceutical industry to come up with drugs of their own which could  soften the impact of illegal drugs.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry was asked to help in the fight against mental illness. Insane Asylums had been the answer for those suffering from mental illness.  Many patients had been confined for decades often suffering debilitating treatment.  Asking the pharmaceutical industry to help develop drugs which could treat some forms of mental illness, became the answer to emptying the mental institutions.  In the 1980’s many mental facilities were closed because the new drug therapy was working.  Unfortunately, drug therapy was often expensive, difficult to administer and difficult for some patients to remember.  Soon, these patients were in jail or on the streets.

Meanwhile, government, in its efforts to create room for new housing and to assure adequate construction rules, began to eliminate cheap housing.  Gone were sub-standard houses.  Cheap hotels were demolished.  Trailer parks were forced out of urban areas or relegated to rural lands.  Housing that alcoholics, addicts and those suffering from  mental illnesses would have gravitated towards were nowhere to be found.  Those suffering from drug or alcohol abuse or mental illnesses, were now, out on the street. .

Just as the Industrial Revolution impacted society and created urban poor, the Digital Revolution did the same to modern American cities.  Wherever large Tech Corporations, with their well-paid employees.  settled, the scarcity of housing to meet the needs of these behemoths caused the price of housing  to increase substantially.  It happened in California, it happened in King County and Washington State and its happening now in Arizona and Texas.  Big monolithic industry drives up the price of everything including the price of housing – often putting it out of range for those not employed in the high tech field.

The housing recession of 2008-2009, showed many former home owners that the cost of owning a single-family home may be out of reach of many who thought they had secure employment.  This recession slowed the demand for single-family homes  .Apartments and condominiums became more prevalent, again adding to housing shortage.  While some young and old can live in apartments with some sense of permanency, families cannot.

That’s the historical background leading to our current situation,.

The answers to the problem are multi-faceted and multi-pronged   There is no single solution.  The issue has been with us for decades and government and social service agencies have debated for decades in an effort to find an answer.

The first step is to recognize that it is not a homeless problem.  It is a drug, alcohol and mental health issue. Nearly 80 percent of all the residents of the camps have those problems.  The other 20 percent are homeless through no  fault of their own – domestic abuse, job loss, medical costs and family disputes.  We currently have programs that work for those individuals and they are rapidly re-housed.

As for the bigger problem, Federal, State, and Local government are stymied.

A recent Federal Court ruling that –  homelessness is not a crime and people can’t be moved unless there is somewhere to move to –  has complicated the issue.  But local government’s decision not to enforce misdemeanors like drug use, littering, theft and other anti-social behavior has complicated efforts to remove “homeless camps.”

The  major responsibility of government is to provide for the safety of the people.  Our elected officials should be forced to honor that commitment.  We must provide more funding for police, jails, prosecutors and the legal system in general.

Until we stop the crime spree associated with homeless camps, we’ll continue to argue and fight over what to do with the drug addicts and those suffering from mental illness.

Once we get the “camps” under control and the criminal activity associated with them, we’ll be able to talk about the next step. Such as treatment, temporary housing, rehabilitation and jobs.

History has shown that government action often doesn’t work and in some cases actually has a negative impact. But, history has also shown that the people will eventually force government to take action.

And, right now, that action seems to be paramount.


Posted in Business, Government, History, Informational, Local Politics, The Real News

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