Monday, April 16, 2018

Housing as a human right

The tragedy is that it’s entirely within our power to do something about it: homelessness is not a choice made by the individual, it is a reality forced by government policy. As homelessness has rocketed in the UK – up 134% since 2010 – it has fallen by 35% in Finland over a similar period of time. The Finnish government is now aiming to abolish it altogether in the coming years. 
I recently travelled to Finland to understand how it had done this. It turns out its solution is painfully simple and blindingly obvious: give homes to homeless people. As Juha Kaakinen, who has led much of the work on “housing first” in Finland, explained to me when I met him in Helsinki, “this takes housing as a basic human right” rather than being conditional on engaging in services for addictions or mental health.
The American liberal may have some reservations about this policy. (I'm not bothering to consider the Conservative case, we'll get to most of it in addressing liberal concerns, the rest will simply be too despicable, cruel, and racist to engage with.) There are three main concerns raised fall under:

  1. We can't afford to give homes away.
  2. Even if we could, we shouldn't because doing so would be demotivational and encourage people to be dependent on the state. (That is to say, lazy.)
  3. Doing so will interfere in the proper functioning of free market capitalism.
Let's take them in order and see if they're reasonable concerns with any evidential support. 

First, the idea we can't afford to just give everyone who needs one a home. The argument we can't afford not to is far more persuasive. The return on investment would be greater than, say, the return we get on paying to develop F-35s, among other things. (The idea that we can't stop spending on the military because it will cost jobs at Boeing, United Technologies, etc. isn't very convincing. For all the whinging you hear about socialist inefficiency, the idea that spending this way to provide jobs is somehow more efficient is ludicrous. How is it not self-evident we'd be better off putting that money directly into improving peoples' lives by meeting their material needs, better for them and better for society as a whole. Not to mention all the brown people of the world we'd scale back bombing the shit out of.)

Is everyone ready and able to maintain a home? The expense associated with maintaining a home may be more than many homeless individuals could afford, and those suffering from mental illnesses would certainly face other challenges. These aren't unreasonable concerns where they apply, and they probably don't as much as you might think, but the obvious problem here is we don't have universal healthcare (a separate issue, but one with a similarly blindingly obvious solution) or guaranteed basic services (again ... ).  So, conceding for the moment giving everyone a place to live would have foreseeable, and potentially unforeseeable, complications, my proposal is simply that we deal with them as they arise, since we'll certainly be in a better position to do so for people with a home than for those living rough. 
The evidence from Finland – as well as numerous other pilot schemes across the world – shows ... [w]hen people are given homes, homelessness is radically reduced, engagement in support services goes up and recovery rates from addiction are comparable to a “treatment first” approach. Even more impressive is that there are overall savings for government, as people’s use of emergency health services and the criminal justice system is lessened.
Are we talking about single family dwellings in suburbs? Townhomes or apartments in cities? Look, I'm open to solutions as radical as seizing the uninhabited properties of the ultra-wealthy to give directly to the poor, to simply paying their rent on apartments near where they're currently living. Solutions in rural areas will likely be different than solutions for the biggest cities, but there's no reason states and localities could experiment until the best solutions were found. 

Talking about the cost of providing homes leads almost directly to addressing the moral concerns about whether we even ought to. Above, the potential for additional costs as we address the difficulties of transitioning of the mentally ill from the streets to housing was considered as part of the affordability, but really the question about whether we'd *really* be helping people if we just gave them homes, thereby disincentivizing them (the argument goes) from providing for themselves. Honestly, "Oh noes, we're going to create state-sponsored parasitic zombies by providing for people!" moral panic is difficult to take seriously, but it is offered as a serious concern in the mainstream debate, so I guess we have to. 

What is the point of this country? Why are we, allegedly, exceptional? What is the best idea the Founding Fathers had?  The preamble to the Constitution holds the answer. Now, before we go on, the Constitution is certainly a flawed document, as it was written and as it exists today, authored as it was by white supremacists with some pretty deluded ideas about who they were and conflicted ideas about what kind of country we should be. Still, when you read this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
What you don't find is anything that says we absolutely must be a capitalist economy and the economic liberty to concentrate as much wealth in the hands of a small number of families ought to be our overriding concern. My main point here is "promoting the general Welfare," is clearly laid out as one of our founding principles. There's more than one way to gauge how we are doing currently at pursuing those lofty goals, but one simple way, no less valid for its simplicity, is to look at how much we spend on the common defense versus how much we spend on promoting the general welfare. It's not as easy as saying the two amounts should be equal, but I maintain that when you already have the most powerful military in the world and nobody is trying to invade you, you don't need to pump a significant portion of your overall spending into developing more armaments or fighting imperialist wars abroad. Rather, the greatest chunk of our wealth (and we are, after all, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world) should be spent on promoting the general welfare. That general welfare, if we take Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a starting point as good as any, it seems to me if we aren't addressing at least the physiological needs (shelter, food, health care) and safety (national defense, sure, but also clean air and water, untainted food, safe communities where you don't have to worry about individuals with access to military-grade weaponry terrorizing your schools, etc.) then we don't even have a country worth defending.

The freedom to accumulate wealth should not be seen as illimitable. It must be balanced against the freedom of all people in a society to live free from want so they can self-actualize to the best of their abilities. We're not talking about "mandated equality" or Orwell's grim take on communism, we're talking about revolutionizing our way out of neoliberalism to what I'll call democratic socialism, which I hope would lead to full communism, but to the extent that's a utopian vision, we'll let democratic socialism do for now. Mere tweaks to the current system, incremental reforms aren't going to get it done. We need radical, revolutionary change to get after living up to our Constitutional mandate because we've gotten it so, so wrong so far.

Is "the Constitution says" the final word here? Can we trust so flawed a document? I stuck to the preamble because it lays out principles I think all reasonable people could find morally acceptable, but the morality of the thing shouldn't be disregarded. What if promoting the general welfare is actually one of the Founders' mistakes? What about the enslavement of the people by the state, who make them weak and dependent by subsidizing their base needs -- stealing from the deserving rich to indulge the lazy poors!

OK, I'm not going a very good job at taking this concern seriously, but here's why: not even, and perhaps especially, the people who advance the concern even do. They wield the idea like a weapon, but when we look at the context in which the concern is raised, what we see are trust fund babies and trust fund baby daddies who've benefited from being the privileged heirs of wealth arguing that their peers (conveniently labeled "job creators") are the most deserving of government largesse to help them become wealthier, with the presumptive benefit of that wealth trickling down to the lower class. When you see these guys who were sent to elite prep schools, graduated to work at dad's firm, got bailed out each time they failed, then lauded each time they succeeded, arguing that giving people things spoils those people, the hypocrisy is enraging. They exploit the working parents' concern, a natural one, that spoiling a child leads to ungratefulness and laziness. But, children are children, and all children deserve to be raised in safe houses, well-fed, given the opportunity to play and learn, and with the ability to see a future for themselves. We don't have that today.

I'm not saying give all children gold toilets to poop in, or that children don't need to learn to self-discipline, but let's get on the same page about how to do that and level the playing field for the children of migrant laborers and the children of investment bankers and Senators. (As long as we have investment bankers, that is.)

Furthermore, adults are not children and the idea because you happen to be wealthy you should be able to act paternalistically, in their "best interest," is disgusting. That's a kind of freedom, the ugly freedom for me but not for thee kind though. You might argue I'm saying this while arguing for a paternalistic state that provides for its citizens. However, I'm not telling people how they ought to live, nor how their suffering builds character while my privilege builds my character based on some predisposition to superiority; I'm saying the state has an obligation (Constitutional and ethical) to provide the freedom for all people to decide how they want to live by giving them freedom from as much suffering as it can. Will some people end up living more luxurious lives than others due to their motivational drive and a bit of luck? Yes, I'm only saying there's a limit to how luxurious that life can be before it impacts the freedom of other people's children to enjoy the same opportunity to make that life for themselves.

Turning to the last objection, the need for free market capitalism to ensure maximum freedom. We've been running this experiment for quite some time and have seen how unfettered capitalism distributes wealth: monopoly and wage slavery. So, we've settled on neoliberalism as the best way to regulate markets in line with white supremacist imperial principles. "B-b-b-but Soviet gulags, Venezuela, and Cuuuuubbbbaaaa!" neolibs inevitably point to as the failure of so-called socialist states and their supposed tendency towards totalitarianism ... while failing to recognize the degree to which those examples were, and are, state capitalist oligarchies, usually under intense pressure from international alliances working against them. I'm no apologist for Stalin, but it's a bad reading of history to paint Stalinism as socialism.

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