A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal 1

(The Abolitionist Talks With HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s McKinney Vento Awards ceremony in October. The abolitionist told  Secretary Donovan that HUD should put conditions on  municipalities they fund that craft ordinances which criminilize homelessness.)

A Modest Proposal

The conversations about homelessness are rife with conflicting views about its causes, cures, and what will make the problem go away.

It can not be said that we directly throw a lot of money at the problem, as there isn’t a lot of money available now in social service budgets on local, state and federal levels.

What little direct money there is continues to be consumed by service providers who supply meals and lodging (emergency shelter and transitional housing), as sort of a “revolving door” remedy. This remedy answers none of the questions of causes or cures, and does not contain elements, which will make the problem go away. Shelter providers seem to be in the business of homeless maintenance, and not the eradication of homelessness. Sadly, this is the industry put in the leadership positions of administering various ten year plans to end homelessness.

As a nation, we are in the middle of most of our ten-year plans, and homelessness is actually increasing. It becomes clear that our ideas and concepts of “homeless maintenance” must evolve into an attitude of homeless eradication if homelessness is to end in the coming decade. While there is little direct or voluntary money to spend on homelessness, we have little control over the indirect or involuntary money we spend on homelessness.

Increasingly, municipalities are resorting to passing laws and ordinances that outlaw activities which street homeless people find themselves engaged in outdoors because they are deprived of housing and the ability to conduct these same activities indoors. Being arrested for lying and reclining in public right of ways, public urination, open containers of alcohol, and trespassing, are just a few of the anti homeless ordinances that have been adopted by various cities. St Petersburg Florida has passed all of the criminalizing ordinances mentioned above and a few more such, as a total ban on exchanges of money at the roadside, as well as an ordinance which compels the homeless to be able to carry in both hands all of the property that they possess in an effort to transfer their homeless problem to the criminal justice system.

The result of these efforts to criminalize homelessness is reflected in huge amounts of indirect money being thrown at the problem involuntarily without rendering the consequence of eradication. For example, in the beginning of the summer of 2010, a study was conducted in St Petersburg, which tracked the criminalization procedures on four homeless men since 2008.[1].These four men spent a total of 765 days in jail (average five days at a time) since 2008 for homeless crimes, with one individual spending 301 days incarcerated in a less than two year period. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s office calculates that it cost the taxpayers 126 dollars for each day spent incarcerated by a random individual. Given that number as a multiplier, those four homeless individuals cost local taxpayers 96,390 dollars between 2008 and June 2010. These individuals are still homeless and still on the streets of St Petersburg, presumably still conduct the business of survival as usual.

Another way that involuntary money is spent on homelessness is through emergency medical services.

The homeless have few choices when it comes to alleviation of minor pain or major trauma. Any medical treatment at all, from a toothache to a sprained ankle, to a gunshot wound is usually administered in the emergency rooms of local hospitals.

The staggering costs of emergency room care and ambulance transportation (ambulance transportation locally cost 521.81 per trip [2]) is passed on to the taxpayer, and the housed consumer of these medical services.

With the voluntary and involuntary resources that are being spent on homelessness, without either method seeming to have any success in eradicating homelessness, it’s time for us as citizens to ask ourselves a couple of deep questions which we surely know the answers to.

The first question is: Why are people homeless? The second one is: How do we end homelessness?

The first question, why are people homeless, has as many answers as there are homeless people. From ageing out of foster care, to fleeing domestic abuse ,to forecloses to unemployment and under employment, to post traumatic stress disorder, to untreated mental illness, to house fires to catastrophic illness, to alcohol/ substance abuse scenarios,  from prison dumping to patient dumping-  it seems we’ve heard it all. We will call these our stock answers.

There is, however, a “cliff notes” answer, which suggests the simple truth: People are homeless because they do not have homes.

At first glance, this answer seems flippant, perhaps because of the simplicity contained in it.

Before we dismiss it as a byproduct, the hubris of logic, we must vet this theory, and see if it stands on its own merit.

Most will acknowledge that food, clothing and housing are basic human rights.

The egregious elements in our society, from death row inmates to prisoners of war are secured in the rights of food, clothing and housing.

Even slaves in the era of American slavery were afforded food, clothing, and housing.

Food, clothing and housing are taken for granted as collective rights enjoyed within our economic system. There are fewer restrictions on food and clothing however, than there is on housing, and there appears to be less judgment connected with providing food and clothing to those who are in need, than with housing.

A quick survey of those without housing would produce the results that the vast majority of those surveyed would want to live inside if they could find the means to house themselves.

This is not conjecture. All that needs to be done is to conduct a survey anywhere one finds homeless people. The answer will be clear. Very few people choose to be homeless. When asked “why are you homeless then?” you will hear one or more of the stock answers laid out above.

If the answer to the first question is true, there is only one answer to the second question. How can we end homelessness?


There are more questions that go along with this proposal. Where do we find the resources to build? Where do we build? Even if we could find the willingness to act, where would we find the resources?

When compared to homelessness after the devastation in Haiti or the recent flooding in Pakistan, America’s homeless issue seems tame.

America certainly has the resources to end involuntary homelessness. The question is,does America have the will or the desire to end homelessness?

For the purpose of this proposal, research was conduct into the number of vacant houses the United States currently has. The research yielded astounding data. One source claimed that vacant houses in the United States are double Canada’s entire housing stock [3]. The 2008 US Census reported that there were 18.1 million vacant houses in America. In recent years, over development and misreading of demand has led to a surplus of supply. More than nine per cent of homes built since 2000, are vacant, in fact, one in nine US houses are vacant.[4] The 2008 US Census reported that there were 759,101 homeless people in a America. That number when applied through strict mathematics means that there were twenty four houses for every homeless American citizen in 2008.This number does not distinguish facts such as the average age of a homeless person is eight, nor does it calculate the physically and mentally disabled homeless, who require hospice care or those who require assisted living scenarios.

Here in Florida and locally, the numbers bring this reality home. St Petersburg Florida has a population of 248,232 people. It has 14,955 vacant houses. Pinellas County where St Petersburg is located has 921,482 people. There are 66,605 vacant houses in the county, and 6.232 homeless people .Florida has a population of 15,982,378. There are a total of 965, 018 vacant house in Florida, compared with 57,751 homeless people.[5]

The huge number of vacant properties causes headaches for cities and local neighborhoods as well, as they contend with vandalism, gang and drug activity, unauthorized deconstruction and violent crimes all centering around that abandoned house on the corner. The solution for some cities is to raze vacancies and forgo shoring up property values and gathering tax revenues. This solution is not uniform as the census reveals that a 500,000 dollar condo is as likely to be empty as a 100,000 dollar home. Typically the razing will come in poorer neighborhoods, where neighborhood cohesiveness is more vital and a rehabilitated vacant house with someone living there would be a boon to property values.

Conventional wisdom and a look at today’s headlines of mounting foreclosures, tell us that homelessness and vacancy problems are getting worse as opposed to leveling off. With two of the top five cities for the number of foreclosures in the nation, Florida continues to be second in the nation in the number of foreclosures. Florida also holds the distinction of having an 11.4% unemployment rate.[6] There is also no place in Florida where a person earning minimum wage could afford a two bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rate.[7] This bleak economic picture, requires that we rethink our approach to housing vulnerable populations

As school districts adjust to a shrinking education dollar and merge schools, leaving one empty, and factories close due to outsourcing, dwindling productivity and outdated technology, there are countless structures other than homes, which can be turned into housing. The second question then, along with the problem of vacant houses, can be answered in the same sentence: PUT HOMELESS PEOPLE TO WORK RECONSTRUCTING VACANT HOUSES, CHURCHES, SCHOOLS AND FACTORIES, AND THEN LET THEM RESIDE IN THEM!

This proposal if adapted would drastically reduce the number of homeless people by putting them to into housing. Carpentry and construction are viable skills and will retain their value when the economy turns productive again. Homeless people would be making a living wage while having a say in their living quarters. These American Citizens would once again be given the right to self determination and set on the road to self sufficiency. Given the average age of a homeless person, and the fact that so many are encumbered with disabilities, there would be enough work to spread around. There would be no hierarchy or critical judgment as all street and shelter homeless would qualify for this program.

Taking the resources from homeless and housing programs that don’t work and applying them to this venture actually could raise money.  Homeless people could pay a third of their income for rent or mortgages, and that money when applicable would go to a general fund where it can be recycled to similar situations. It would be the responsibility of the service provider to provide housing at the end of the rendered service, and to employ whatever aftercare is needed to keep the client from becoming homeless again.

From the shelters which do not provide permanent housing at the end of a homeless client’s tenure, to the criminalization procedures and jails which do not provide an apartment upon release, all are guilty of homeless maintenance, and in some cases homeless perpetuation. We must restrain ourselves from homeless services that do not have a punch line. We should make sure that our goal in the end of our homeless service is to make certain that our homeless clients are no longer homeless.

This proposal attempts to illustrate, through answering two questions that the answer to ending homelessness is with our grasp.

One question remains. Do we have the will to end homelessness?

The answer to this question may be contained in a complex treatise on the American psyche that the author of this proposal is not qualified to write.

We do know this. When Americans are being systematically marginalized, and discrimination among a peculiar group runs rampant, such as women and blacks, and immigrants, constitutional amendments are often presented in order for the will against such wrongs to be collectively, and nationally dealt with .This collective will enables ordinary people to deal with issues beyond their reach by voting for or against a proposal they see affecting the lives of other people.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew this well. On January 11, 1944, Roosevelt delivered a Second Bill of Rights proposal in his State of the Union Address.[8] With employment with living wage, the right of every American to have a decent home and the right to adequate medical care, included in his Second Bill of Rights, Roosevelt was attempting to harness the collective national will, and guide it to the lofty realm of justice for all.

Presented here is the collective national will of the American people in the form of the proposed twenty eighth amendment to the United States Constitution:

Section 1.Involuntary homelessness shall not exist in the United States of America, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Food ,clothing and housing shall be guaranteed rights to every American citizen.

Section 3. The congress shall have the power to enforce this article through appropriate legislation.

The eradication of homelessness by 2020 will not be easy. It will take the reconciliation of old enemies and the marriage of strange bedfellows. It will take a re-examination of our attitudes and our collective will.

Most of all, it will take the vision and the discipline to abandon the policies we have employed year after year million after million, which have proven to be ineffective.


[1] Study conducted by The Homeless Image newspaper and Southern Legal Counsel (non profit law firm Gainsville,Fl)

[2]  Suncoast Emergency Services

[3] http://paul.kedrosky.com/archives/2010/08/too_many_homes.html

[4] http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/housing/2009-02-12-vacancy12_N.html

[5] http://blogs.wsj.com/developments/2008/03/21/more-homes-sitting-vacant-florida-hit-hard/

[6] The U.S. Department of Labor

[7] The National Low Income Housing Coalition

[8] Wikipedia; Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights

Additional information was made available by the Florida Coalition for the Homeless and Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, and the United States Census Bureau.

Kirsten Clanton Attorney Southern Legal Counsel, Mary Bricker-Jones Professor Emeritus Temple University, United States and Canada Alliance of Inhabitants, and Dr Jill McCracken PhD professor of English University of South Florida, assisted in the preparation of this proposal.


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