Mourn, Then Organize: The Longest Night And the Fight for Housing Justice

In many communities, December 21 is the date when a local house of worship serves as the host of a Longest Night service memorializing the homeless persons who died in the past year. In my community of Indianapolis, Christ Church Cathedral at the center of downtown began last year’s event by ringing its bell 167 times — 166 to mark each known death, plus one more for those who passed alone and uncounted. The national estimate is that 7,000 homeless persons die each year, most of them due to violence, exposure, or preventable and treatable illness.

If you don’t leave one of these services a socialist, you weren’t paying attention.

There is no area where the toxic capitalism of the United States is on more display than in housing, which we are notorious for treating as a commodity instead of a human right. The hundreds of billions of dollars that our government spends each year showering corporate landlords and the wealthiest homeowners with tax credits, deductions, and abatements outnumbers our investment in affordable housing by at least 5 to 1, and by some measures a startling 13 to 1

Yet our lavishly subsidized private housing market fails utterly to serve our communities’ needs. We can see proof of that at the annual memorial service. We can see it on our streets, where a half-million people live unhoused. If we could see into the kitchens and bedrooms of worried families who are teetering on the edge of disaster, we would know it is there, too: over ten million people in the United States, are behind on their rent and at risk of eviction. Usually, there is nowhere for them to turn, because three of every four people eligible for federal housing subsidies are denied due to program underfunding.  

Worse yet, the multi-generation starvation of public housing fueled by the private real estate lobby means that the government housing assistance we do provide is usually filtered through private landlords, often huge for-profit corporations. They siphon off their healthy cut but then too often fail to provide reliable access to those most in need. Even the Congressional Budget Office has admitted that our largest creator of affordable housing, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, is “more suited to the needs of investors than poor renters.”

Other gaps in our social safety net, especially access to reliable mental and physical healthcare, help explain why the life expectancy of a homeless person is some twenty years less than the national average. But nations like Finland have proven that a “Housing First” approach not only prevents the trauma of exposure and instability that comes with living unhoused, it is the best way to ensure that the needed services are accessible and utilized.

When those church bells peal on the longest night in our communities, it is completely appropriate to mourn those who have passed. But the ringing should also serve as an alarm reminding us that responsibility for most of these deaths should be laid at the feet of our corrupt capitalist system. 

So, once we finish mourning, let’s get back to organizing.

(This essay originally appeared on DSA’s Religious Socialism page.)