To end homelessness in Philadelphia, let’s guarantee housing for everyone

     An encampment on 5th Street under the Vine Street Expressway is shown in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    An encampment on 5th Street under the Vine Street Expressway is shown in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    Everyone deserves to have a place to live and to have their basic needs met, without qualifications. I don’t care if you’re a “good citizen” or a “hard worker.” I know that sounds revolutionary or vaguely communist, but it’s actually a solution to poverty, a malignancy that threatens all other cells in the body politic.

    In Philadelphia, poverty is a serious problem. Of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., Philly has the highest rate of so-called “deep poverty,” measured by the number of people living at 50 percent or less of the federal poverty level.

    For one person, “deep poverty” means an income of about $5,800 per year or $113 per week. And, for a family of four, it means living on $230 per week — or less of course. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 186,000 Philadelphians, 60,000 of whom are children, live in this misery.

    At $7.25 per hour, the minimum wage in Pennsylvania, you could work up to 15 hours per week and make only that paltry sum. And, given the way many employers limit hours to keep workers part-time, it’s not unimaginable that 15 or 20 hours a week of minimum-wage employment is the best that many people can do.

    All told, according to 2014 figures, about 375,000 Philadelphians live below the federal poverty level. That’s about 26 percent of the city’s population.

    That’s a lot of people living on the margins.

    Stable housing is a right

    One of those families living in deep poverty recently gained attention when, under frightening circumstances camping in LOVE Park, their 2-year-old son wandered off for a time. Angelique Roland and Michael Jones admitted that, despite doing their best, they were homeless and in need of help.

    Of course, America loves a simple story, divine intervention, and a happy ending, so the private sector swung into action. A blend of private citizens and organizations such as Chosen 300 Ministries donated money to rent a house, Impact Thrift Stores donated furniture for the family’s newly rented house, and while this was being sorted out, Marriott gave the family a hotel room.

    They deserve all of this — but so does every other impoverished Philadelphian. And, as the Marriott does not offer to house every other homeless person in Philly, I’m left to believe that there’s a gap in society’s overall needs being met.

    More to the point: We shouldn’t have to depend on media attention or a Frankenstein’s monster of private sector generosity to solve a social problem.

    We need to develop a public plan to end homelessness and poverty in this city. It’ll require big thinking. We have the space, too: Philadelphia was once inhabited by about 2 million people. Now, we’ve got about 1.5 million.

    It’s clear that there are many homeless people living on the streets of Philadelphia or in abandominiums — a novel term for abandoned or derelict living spaces. Advocacy organization Project HOME says that on any given night, “we have an average 650 people living on the streets, 300 of whom are in Center City.”

    While shelter conditions are better than the street, they’re not exactly ideal. I lived in a derelict house for a time with no heat or hot water. While living in a shelter, I remember washing my clothes in a bathtub. And my watch was stolen from under my pillow while I slept — an admittedly amazing fiendish feat.

    For those outside of the system, living in spaces not meant for human habitation, biological realities present predicaments most people don’t even think about. I’ve heard stories of Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions used in lieu of a decent toilet. It makes me wonder why the city does not build public restrooms in public parks.

    The smart money is on fighting homelessness

    Folks who live under these circumstances deserve help — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes economic sense.

    The state of Utah has effectively ended chronic homelessness with a very simple solution: by providing housing and access to social services to those who need housing. And, for every person offered housing, state officials there say taxpayers save at least $8,000.

    “We’ve saved millions on this,” Utah’s Gordon Walker insists to The Washington Post. A self-described “fiscal conservative,” Walker is director of that state’s Housing and Community Development Division.

    Just 10 years ago, Utah had over 1,900 homeless people. Today, Walker says the state is “approaching a functional zero” in terms of its homeless population.

    That’s a lot of people no longer sleeping in subway stations, abandoned houses, or public parks. It’s also a lot of people who aren’t so focused on surviving today that they can’t conceptualize a tomorrow. Stability affords people the ability to plan, to envision a future, to act in pro-social ways.

    Providing housing and access to services is a smart investment that heads off inevitable social problems attributable to homelessness or human responses to scarcity and despair, such as crime, addiction and untreated mental illness.

    If every Philadelphian had guaranteed access to safe housing, we could dramatically reduce or outright eliminate a lot of these problems in one fell swoop. Imagine the amount of class strife that would be eliminated, too, by telling everyone in Philly that they have a right to housing and will be able to access that housing.

    I know. This sounds like the “free” stuff conservatives bristle at on talk radio. But that’s just infotainment rhetoric. Besides, this isn’t a giveaway: It’s a critical expenditure that actually saves money for taxpayers.

    In other words, it’s a key investment in human life today that affords a tremendously large return tomorrow.

    If you ask me, you can’t get more American than big ideas with big payoffs.

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