Unhoused, Unseen, and Unheard: What is a socialist response to the crisis of homelessness? 

 

In October, The World Bank announced that an additional 88 to 115 million people around the world will fall into extreme poverty due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. This is on top of the 736 million who are already living on an income of $1.90 or less a day (the agreed-upon definition of extreme poverty). This is devastating. May I challenge you to pause and hold that reality for a minute?  Don’t just keep reading, but let the gravity of that number sink in.  

It’s nearly impossible to wrap our minds around. Indeed, it is unspeakable. 

Or rather, many of us simply choose not to speak about it.  

Candidates in the two major parties rarely mention extreme poverty or homelessness. Politicians are coached to appeal to the “middle class” – that amorphous group that 70% of us believe we belong to. Occasionally, they will speak of “Working Class folks” (as opposed to “Wall Street folks”) in an effort to capture the support of Rust Belt voters and individuals in places like Scranton or Detroit. 

But words like poverty and homelessness are seldom, if ever, used. More important, politicians almost never talk about efforts and policies around extreme poverty and homelessness. In 1928, Republicans promised “A Chicken for Every Pot” right before the economy went into the basement. In 2016, they weren’t so specific, merely promising to “Make America Great Again.”  Who can imagine “A Roof Over Every Head” as a campaign promise? 

Yet it’s not just politicians. Societally, we have become numb to the reality of homelessness and extreme poverty. We walk by individuals asking for money on the street or camped on a park bench. At best, we offer some of our food or pocket change. At worst, we keep it moving and ignore them. We have forgotten that this situation did not always exist in the way it does today.

Before working as a university chaplain, I served as a street outreach worker engaging individuals navigating homelessness in Philadelphia. We helped many people move from living on the streets into programs that helped them work toward independent living: fighting addictions, receiving mental health support, entering job training programs, finding shelter after tragedies or abuse, and more. So much of that work was about learning names, building relationships, and gaining the trust of the people we were engaging.  

 Many of Philadelphia’s outreach efforts focus on the library on Ben Franklin Parkway because so many of our unhoused sisters and brothers end up staying around there. There are clusters of wooden benches in front of the library that provide a public space (which brings a degree of safety), near a building with public restrooms and shelter when it rains (in pre-COVID-19 times).

One day, talking to a young brother who was staying on the benches, I shared that I was a member of the DSA. After some explaining of why I felt this was the organization that most closely aligned with my political and ethical beliefs, he asked, “So, what does socialism have to say about homelessness?” 

I don’t think I did a very good job answering that question back then. My interpretation of democratic socialism had/has religious roots. And I was serving on the street because of religious convictions and a sense of calling, but I struggled to articulate how my faith, my politics, and my desire to alleviate the causes of homelessness intersected. 

 How I define socialism has expanded and grown more complicated over the years—as have I. Here are a few thoughts.

First, sit with the question. Don’t rush to answer it, but contemplate what your/our interpretation of democratic socialism has to say about homelessness and extreme poverty. This is an important question.  

Second, put some legs on your beliefs. By this I mean lead by example. We must do more than just talk or write or even protest. We must love and walk with those whom we are fighting for. Let your service and care for individuals on the street be a kind of trickle-up policy that influences your local chapter and our entire national organization.  

Next, make sure that we differentiate between groups like “working class,” “the underemployed,” and “individuals experiencing homelessness (or the unhoused),” although those lines can be painfully blurry. Being underemployed and working for less than a living wage can quickly result in one not keeping up with their rent. For some of us, the inability to keep up with our rent means moving in with family members. Sadly, many individuals don’t have the safety net of loved ones to rely on until they can get back on their feet, and they end up living in shelters or on the street. In fact, a number of the individuals we served were living in shelters while working jobs that didn’t pay them enough to house themselves.

This means that we need nuanced ways of fighting. We must fight for a living wage. Simultaneously, we must fight back against the cruel evictions crisis which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Philadelphia, where I live, has witnessed an already-iconic organizing victory after encampments on the parkway I described above, with the city agreeing to transfer ownership of more than 50 empty buildings to a nonprofit housing trust and create tiny-house villages to house the rest of those in the encampments. 

Many DSA chapters around the country are already engaged in both of these battles by seeking to help individuals and families facing eviction find safe, affordable, reliable housing, by showing up in housing court, as well as by pushing policy makers toward compassionate and just actions. To get involved with other DSA members working on issues like this, reach out to the DSA Housing Justice Commission at housingjustice@dsacommittees.org.

Still, there is a range of reasons why some of us end up on the streets, which means we need to provide a range of avenues for individuals to get back on their feet. Some of these paths out are economic and housing-based, while others are not. How will you serve this very vulnerable population? How will you help our sisters and brothers on the street and in our shelters?

Finally, we must be aware of and moved by the extreme poverty that is going on around the world. Socialism is a global movement. The greater part of those facing extreme poverty is in other parts of the world that are feeling the economic fallout from the pandemic much harder than we are. Do we care? How far does our solidarity extend?