For many people, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the only time of year that their thoughts turn to the plight of the homeless. Money, food, and presents are donated. And time is volunteered at shelters. All to make sure that people without a home of their own have a nice holiday—at least for a few hours. Worthy efforts to be sure.
However, despite this periodic outpouring of compassion, there’s still an unfortunate tendency to individualize homelessness in our society. As with poverty in general, casual observers assume that it’s personal failings that cause people to end up without housing.
And while it’s a truism that every person bears some responsibility for the straits they find themselves in, there are three major structural problems out of the control of impoverished individuals that best explain the rise of homelessness in Massachusetts: savage cuts to our state mental health system, an economy that creates large numbers of bad low-wage jobs, and the destruction of affordable housing.
Taking these issues in turn, the Commonwealth started shutting down most of its oft-criticized inpatient mental hospitals on budget and civil liberties grounds in the 1970s—leading to the first wave of homeless people with few places to turn for help and little ability to escape their fate. Things have only gotten worse since then. According to Mass Live, over the last 20 years the legislature has cut spending on inpatient mental health services by half and outpatient spending has remained stagnant.
Next, National Public Radio recently reported that wages and benefits “essentially flatlined or declined for four of five Americans between 2007 and 2014.” As big business racked up super profits, and crushed labor unions. Continuing a trend that also started in the 1970s where wage growth has slowed dramatically for most working people even as their productivity has increased. People at the bottom of the economic pyramid have been hardest hit, and ever more working people are finding themselves unable to pay mortgages or rent with the money they make working two or even three bad low-wage jobs with no benefits and little opportunity for advancement.
Then there’s the acute problem of skyrocketing housing costs in the Bay State. Especially in the hot Metro Boston real estate market where either buying or renting has become terribly difficult for poor folks.
This situation began when rent control—which limited the ability of landlords to raise rents in a number of cities in Mass—was torpedoed in 1994 with a state referendum backed by the real estate industry. When rent control ended in 1995, landlords immediately started jacking rents far beyond many tenants’ ability to pay, and housing developers started building luxury apartments and condos at a far higher rate than desperately needed affordable housing. Building new public housing, once a saving grace to poor families, has been taken pretty much off the table on ideological grounds since the Reagan era.
Making matters worse, the devastating subprime mortgage scandal that started in 2007 and caused the Great Recession of 2008 led to nearly 22,000 foreclosure filings in one nine-month period in Mass in 2009, according to the Boston Globe. And there have been thousands more in the years since. A trend which is now accelerating again.
The result? As a 2016 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition points out, the Commonwealth is short 166,960 affordable housing units for extremely low income households making 30 percent or less of their area’s median income. And the Mass Coalition for the Homeless states that the approximately 3,000 night shelter beds for individuals statewide are usually full or beyond capacity—and that there were 21,135 people in Massachusetts counted as experiencing homelessness during the January/February 2015 headcount conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Numbers which barely begin to describe the magnitude of the crisis when hundreds of thousands of hard-working Bay State residents are just a couple of paychecks away from penury.
So if you really want to help homeless people—during the holidays and every day—you should consider joining advocates working to end homelessness. It’s not rocket science. Increasing our state mental health budget, passing living wage laws to make more jobs into decent ones, restoring rent control, devoting public funds to build lots of decent affordable housing, and properly taxing the rich and corporations to pay for such needed reforms will go a long way toward stopping the structural poverty forcing people out of their homes. Making us a better and more compassionate society in the bargain.