We are so poisoned by ideology that finding solutions to our problems seems to be secondary to making sure those solutions come from our side of the aisle. America has ceased to be a community, and we are simply comprised of warring factions pushing each other down in a zero-sum game—which is why this new initiative from Jeremy Corbyn is so intriguing thanks to how it challenges our ideology. Conservatives instantly seized on it as yet another utopian socialist fantasy that has no basis in reality, while those on the left praised Corbyn as a folk hero who is one of only a few politicians who can be trusted to treat the homeless with any measure of compassion.
Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the British Labour Party which did not win complete control, but loosened Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories’ grip on the UK government last year. He recently announced a supposedly radical plan to give 8,000 homeless people homes. Fox Business said that people will intentionally become homeless because of this policy, and “that’s not the way to fix income inequality.” Well guess what? Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the only one who disagrees with Republican State TV here—so does the Utah Republican Party.
Utah is one of the most consistent red states in the union. They haven’t had a Democratic governor since 1985. The state Senate is presently comprised of 24 Republicans and five Democrats. Their House has 63 Republicans versus 12 Democrats. The last Democrat Utah voted for in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson. Utah renders ideology on the homelessness issue moot. If you oppose Corbyn’s move because you think it’s socialism, how do you describe it in the context of the Utah GOP philosophically supporting the same policy?
Corbyn’s proposed plan and Utah’s implemented policy are certain to differ in strategy and scope, but the elemental basis of their solution is the exact same: give the homeless homes. The fact that this is painted as “radical” by some of American media is indicative not just of how far right our discourse has shifted over the last fifty years, but how little regard we have for the most vulnerable among us. As Ron Swanson of Parks & Recreation said, capitalism “is God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor,” and we have embodied the most extreme parts of a fictional character designed to be comedic relief.
Just because we toss the homeless away to the edges of society doesn’t mean it comes free. Thanks to America’s rightward shift over the last half-century, we don’t think of policy in terms of the human costs until we figure out the dollar costs—and this is where decrying Corbyn’s policy as “socialism” runs into trouble with reality. President Obama’s HUD Secretary said that each homeless person costs the government $40,000 per year between “shelters, emergency rooms and jails.” An Oklahoma-based consultant group studied Florida and found that residents pay $31,065 per chronically homeless person every year to live on the streets.
Using Obama’s HUD secretary’s figure, we spend over $22 billion per year to keep the 564,708 homeless on the streets. To put that staggering figure in context, that’s nearly twice as much as what the federal government spends on food & agriculture. It’s $7 million less than our 2015 science budget. If fiscal conservatism was actually about being fiscally conservative, homelessness would receive far more attention from the right side of the aisle. If you view all policies through its effect on the budget, there is no rationale for supporting the status quo of homelessness, yet here we are. Now that a socialist has endorsed a more aggressive version of a policy already enacted by one of America’s reddest states, we are retreating into our ideological corners—more afraid of supporting something our tribe supposedly doesn’t than pursuing policies which make people’s lives empirically better.
I lived in Boston for nearly a decade—one of the costliest housing markets in America—and the most expensive rent I ever paid ran me about $16,000 per year. Or put another way: around half of what we all pay to keep each homeless person on the streets. There’s basic logic with this issue that we ignore in favor of “punishing” folks who supposedly failed to take advantage of capitalism. We ignore facts like 40,000 veterans are homeless. Or the 550,000 children who experience homelessness for a week or longer. Or the 1.3 to 1.7 million children who experience homelessness for at least one day each year. Instead of dealing with the reality of the inefficiencies of our economic system, we hide behind general platitudes which remove blame from ourselves and place it on others. It doesn’t even matter if a policy works if it’s not “capitalism” (whatever the hell that means anymore). We are slaves locked inside cages of our own making, and we are dragging our most vulnerable down with us.
Utah’s plan is working. Reports initially said that giving homes to the homeless reduced chronic homelessness by 91%, but that staggering figure actually reflected a change in how people were counted far more than the effectiveness of the program. However, just because that figure is dramatically skewed doesn’t mean that the general trend is off. Giving homes to the homeless has indeed reduced chronic homelessness in Utah. The only debate is to what degree.
There may be no issue where America displays its hypocrisy more than it does on the issue of homelessness. We tell ourselves that capitalism is about giving everyone an equal shot at success, but then we vote for policies which restrict people’s ability to rise out of poverty, like the GOP-led assault on Medicaid. Despite Americans saying they support Medicaid by large majorities—Republicans included—we still give space to a party which is hostile to all attempts to aid poor people. As soon as these policies push people to the streets, we assume it is of their own doing because “personal responsibility” or something—whatever we can tell ourselves to push this problem out of our minds. Despite the comforts of modernity, we still perform human sacrifice to appease an amorphous deity—it’s just not as straightforward as placing them on an altar and ripping their hearts out. We achieve that same endgame through a toxic combination of policy and apathy.
Americans have been trained to only see black and red on a budget, not the human costs of that budget. However, we are so ideologically poisoned that even if we see black on the budget, unless it comports with our biases, we dismiss it altogether. There is something to be learned from the fact that socialists in Britain and conservatives in Utah arrived at similar solutions to the same problem. When we set aside ideology and focus on what works, we can do good in this world. However, given the nature of our cruel reality, the question now becomes: do we want to?
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.