In March I heard Bryan Stevenson speak at Loyola. He is the Executive Director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy. Stevenson challenged the audience to change the narrative around poverty, drugs and social justice. What if we considered the other side of poverty not to be wealth but rather social justice – justice in terms of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society? Doesn’t everyone deserve to have a roof over their head and a warm dry place to sleep at night? Currently, many people do not have a fair shot at this simple concept of a safe, consistent place to sleep indoors.
Housing costs are also the most expensive part of most people’s budget. 52% of Baltimore City residents are renters; of that number 55% pay too much for housing costs. In Baltimore City, the median two bedroom apartment costs before utilities would require someone to make $27 per hour to have rent equal 30% of their gross income. The numbers are not much better for a single person as the average one bedroom would require an income of $21.50 per hour (That’s $44,700 a year.) Ensuring that people get and stay housed should be important to our city.
As I have become more proximate to people who have experienced homelessness, I have realized that Stevenson is right. As a society we are shaping the discussion incorrectly. Why do people assume that a person experiencing homelessness made a mistake; that they did something wrong? Why when a person gets addicted do we assume that they are entirely to blame? Why don’t we assume that we have as a society let them down by allowing them to live in poverty, hopelessness, pain or despair without help or hope?
On the other hand, why don’t we assume that we are not creating enough opportunities for people? Why don’t we assume that the mental health system has failed them? Why do we allow a healthcare system that can bankrupt someone due to illness? Why don’t we demand better public education? Why don’t we help make housing affordable?
People live on the streets because we have framed the ‘housing question’ around being worthy of housing or earning one’s housing. Things that you and I take completely for granted… eating what and when we want, turning the light out at night when we want, going to the bathroom when we need to… are either not available to some people or worse can be a crime when committed because there is nowhere to legally do so. Shelters ask people to arrive at a certain time each night and leave at a certain time each morning… where you relieve yourself during the day is up to your creativity until they open up again that evening. How many times have you seen signs saying “Restrooms for Paying Customers Only”? However, public bathrooms are hard to find and public urination can land you in jail.
Permanent supportive housing is less expensive per person per night than temporary housing – often less than half the cost. It merely requires a longer commitment up front. In order to end homelessness we need to make social justice a priority.