by Ellen Isaacs
November 7, 2020
We should celebrate a victory in New York City (NYC), even though it is a temporary and limited one in a war that we should never need to fight.
Until Covid -19, single homeless adults in NYC were housed in up to 100 bed dormitories where crime and drug use were rampant. Many homeless people preferred to sleep on the street or the subways rather than in these facilities. However, the Covid-19 epidemic forced the City to use vacant hotels –even upscale ones – for shelter in the face of the highly contagious virus. One such move of over 700 single adults to four hotels in the prosperous and “liberal” Upper West Side of Manhattan resulted in a battle between wealthy racist property owners, who used racist slurs to castigate their new neighbors and demand their removal, and local anti-racists who fought back. The anti-racists not only organized petitions and demonstrations to pressure the feckless Mayor de Blasio into reversing his removal order, but they are providing aid and services to the homeless. The once-empty hotels are still home to the needy – for now.
The Degree of Homelessness
As of 2019, there were over 550,000 homeless people in the US, 17 out of every 10,000 people. They represent every region, family configuration, gender, and race, although Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, black and Latin workers are about ten times more likely to be homeless than whites. 30% are families with children. Homelessness increased by 3% in 2019 for the third straight year(1).
In NYC, in May, 2020 there were 59,308 homeless people, including 13,523 homeless families with 20,044 homeless children, sleeping each night in the municipal shelter system. This is 61% higher than it was ten years ago, 133% higher for single adults. In addition, there are uncounted thousands who sleep each night on the streets, subways or other public spaces. Only 7% of those in shelters are white(2).
Los Angeles has 41,000 unhoused people and 93,000 vacant homes, of which 46, 000 are kept unoccupied for seasonal or recreational use. At least 959 homeless people have died on the streets in 2020(3). During the recent American Public Health Convention, a presenter described a “successful” project that set up 200 tents in a parking lot for 3900 homeless veterans.
The pandemic will undoubtedly make this crisis much worse. According to the Aspen Institute, an estimated 30-40 million people may be in danger of eviction over the next several months. This includes both renters and home owners who will not be able to afford their mortgages(4). In many areas there have been freezes on evictions for a few months, but usually there is a requirement that back payments be made. For those who have suffered unemployment of any length, this will not be possible.
How Can This Be?
How is this tolerated in the richest nation on earth? Clearly because rich really only refers to a very small slice of the population, corporate owners and their acolytes, who own 40% of the wealth, more than the bottom 90% combined. Moreover, there is a sharp racial divide in the distribution of wealth, with black and Latin people respectively having 10 and 12 % of that of whites.
Many people become homeless because they are unemployed, which makes them valueless in a capitalist society in which workers are commodities who are valued only for how much profit they can generate for a boss. Just like the old or ill or disabled, the unemployed are only a burden to society and of no intrinsic value to capitalism except to drive wages down by providing a source of surplus labor. However, in 2017 in Washington, D.C. 22% of single homeless adults and 25% of families had an employed member. In NYC, the Department of Homeless Services estimates that 34% of homeless families have a working adult(5). Clearly this results from the severe disproportion between minimum wages ranging from $7.50-15/hour and rents that average $192 per square foot, or $1500-2000 for an average apartment(6).
Homelessness has become much more deadly during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to one report, homeless people are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require intensive care and two to three times as likely to die as the general population. 400,000 new beds in isolation settings would be needed on any day to meet emergency social distancing needs(7). Another study estimates that 10% of the homeless will be hospitalized with Covid-19(8).
Making it Seem All Right
In order to make acceptable this lack of one of life’s necessities, shelter, we are inculcated with the idea that all who fail to obtain it are criminals or physically or mentally inferior and unable to provide for themselves. There are many glaring social problems, of which homelessness is only one, whose sufferers are portrayed as responsible for or deserving of their own circumstances, be it poverty, low educational attainment or addiction. In fact, the criminalization of homelessness is increasing in recent years, with anti “urban camping” laws – being anywhere with a makeshift bed or shelter going up by 69% ; the criminalization of sleeping in public by 31%; of sitting or lying down on a sidewalk, 52%; of panhandling, 43%; and finally against loafing or loitering, 88%. Many of the unhoused have no choice but to violate these ordinances that often apply to entire urban areas(9). It is not so different from the Jim Crow South when “vagrant” black men were arrested and subject to prison and forced labor.
Racism, of course, also plays a major role. Given that the vast majority of the homeless are non-white, they are often portrayed as criminal or menacing. During the aforementioned campaign against the homeless in Manhattan, the racist propaganda described them as “people addicted to drugs or sex offenders,” although there was actually no higher rate of sex offenders than already live in the neighborhood or any increase in arrests. Their presence was described as a reason families would leave the area, and it was suggested they be moved to other boroughs where there are more poor and people of color, people like them.
Laws that do not protect
The fact is that US law, including the US Constitution, provides us with the right to hold onto and protest about our various beliefs and grievances, but it does not guarantee us a safe or stable survival. There is no right to health care, to a job with a livable wage, a safe environment, nor is there a right to shelter. As originally written, the Constitution allowed slavery and restricted the right to vote to the 20% of white men who owned property. It took over 120 years for the vote to be extended to all citizens and for some forms of racism to be barred, although sexist and, especially, racist discrimination continue to be pronounced. But still, there is no basic right to be able to achieve happiness, the pursuit of which is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, which requires a minimum of shelter and nourishment. The International Declaration of Human Rights, to which the US is a signatory, goes much further in declaring what standards are essential to providing a safe and happy existence, but the US has never seen the need to implement such provisions. Many social benefits that exist today, such as the shorter workday, health insurance for some, Social Security, welfare benefits, protections for the disabled and many other modes of assistance resulted from mass struggles by workers.
It is up to local governments, if they wish to or are pressured to do so, to provide some relief to homeless people. In NYC, the law requires that shelter be provided to all who need it and that it be safe, healthy and well maintained. However, the truth is far from the mandate(10). A recent report by Albany lawmakers found that nearly all the apartments supplied to families had serious violations such as lead paint, crumbling walls, broken toilets, rodent and roach infestations, and mold(11). Shelters have so many rules that it is almost impossible not to break some, such as curfews, not being allowed to leave the laundry while using it or to visit one’s neighbors, and residents are constantly being expelled for violating them. The Albany report advised that it would require near $1 billion to provide needed housing and rent subsidies, an unimaginable prospect. How far is US capitalism from the Marxist precept of from each according to ability (or commitment) and to each according to need!
Of course there are a wealth of laws (see The U.S. Government Created and/or Perpetuated Segregated Housing– With Malice and Forethought, a review of Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law, on this blog) that created and maintained segregated housing zones, some federal and some local with federal support. Many cities have zoning laws that require that single-family and thus more expensive homes be built on residential land: 80% in Seattle, 53% in San Francisco, 50% in Philadelphia and often over 90% in suburbs(6). The most fundamental point is that, under capitalism, there is no incentive to build housing unless it can be sold at a profit, which will never be true of housing for the poor. The best that has been done is to build “projects” when there has been an acute demand to house workers, but this has been done most efficiently when the need was among white workers, such as after World War II through the 1980s. Only when whites moved out to the suburbs did the segregated housing become the mostly black and Latin projects of today(Rothstein).
What Is To Be Done?
There are short-term demands we can and should make, such as permanent moratoria on evictions without requiring payments in arrears to be made. We can also demand that vacant housing be made available now to all those who are homeless, as mothers did in Oakland, Ca. Evictions can also be stopped by the mass actions of workers, as happened during the 1930s under the leadership of the Communist party, especially in Harlem, NYC. We can follow the example of the anti-racists in Manhattan who are now battling for their homeless new neighbors. However, ultimately we are up against the contradictions of capitalism: putting a value on worker productivity as opposed to valuing workers themselves and providing the products and services that workers need, not only at a profit or otherwise at the lowest possible level. Thus, as is true with all aspects of workers’ lives that we consider, we must fight for a new system that outlaws profit and puts workers’ needs first. Such a system is called communism.