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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Mar 9, 2019

The housing crisis started with a policy decision

The leading cause was cutbacks to federal funding for housing for poor people starting with the Reagan administration. In 1978, the federal government was funding about over 300,000 new units of affordable housing each year. In 1983, that number had decreased to under 3,000 each year. Currently, only one in four poor people who qualify for federal housing assistance actually receives it. Working men and women who do not earn enough to pay for housing, such as minimum wage workers, cannot afford housing based on affordability guidelines set by the federal government.

Housing is a human right

Without housing, nothing else is truly possible. Housing is essential for families, children, adults, the ill, and the disabled. Housing is recognized as a human right by the UN and by international treaties, including some that the United States has signed on to. However, even though Congress has set a goal for decent, affordable housing for every family 50 years ago, it has not made it a right. A large and growing percentage of the homeless are families with children. Studies have shown that childhood homelessness is a risk factor for adult homelessness.

The criminalization of homelessness

A wide variety of laws criminalize homelessness by making it a crime for the homeless to be in public spaces, such as sleeping in public, begging in public places, sitting down in public, or living in yofour car. Cities have fined the homeless, arrested them, and put them in jail. Studies show that these measures are not cost-effective. It is more expensive for the police to arrest or cite people, put them through the court process, and jail them. Moreover, when the people are released, they are still homeless, but now have an arrest record, which makes it more difficult to find a job or housing. It is more cost effective to provide housing, and it solves the problem.

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Maria Foscarinis is the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and has advocated for solutions to homelessness at the national level since 1985. Among other honors, Maria is the recipient of the 2006 Public Interest Achievement Award from the Public Interest Law Foundation at Columbia Law School and the 2016 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize from Santa Clara University’s School of Law.