Homes Not Handcuffs

Homelessness is caused by failed federal housing policies. When the federal government slashed the affordable housing budget by 77% in the early 1980s, it created a wave of mass homelessness that continues today. Subsequent cuts to social safety programs, widening economic inequality, weakened trade unions, global outsourcing, and the explosion of violent policies of racial subordination (such as mass incarceration, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the ‘War on Drugs’), exacerbated this trend. Millions of people in the US experience homelessness each year — not by choice, but because the system has failed us.

Today’s homeless assistance programs are not ending homelessness, nor succeeding in making it “rare, short-lived, and non-recurring.” Between 1979-1983, $73 billion (in 2019 real dollars) was cut from the annual federal housing budget. In 2019, the entire federal budget for Homeless Assistance grants was $2.6 billion. Do the math: you cannot fill a $73 billion housing gap with $2.6 billion in band-aid programs.

Until we recognize that housing is a human right, and commit to a policy of universal housing for all, we will not end homelessness. As a state, Colorado has one of the most acute affordable housing shortages in the country, and economic and racial inequity are growing throughout the state. This has caused homelessness to rise considerably throughout Northern Colorado in recent decades, including in Fort Collins.

As homelessness becomes more visible in an area, local governments are often called to “do something about homelessness.” Local governments have overwhelmingly responded with a sprinkling of minor social programs and a heavy over-investment in policing and laws that directly target homeless people. For example, as homelessness has become more visible in Fort Collins, the City government has responded by increasing camping enforcement, proposing Sit-Lie bans, utilizing hostile architecture (such as benches designed to make it impossible to lie down, or landscaping that makes it physically painful to seek shelter under a bridge), by trying to make it hard to donate to panhandlers, and by constantly hiring more police.

It is not right for local governments to criminalize people for living in a failed system. Camping bans and community policing do not reduce homelessness, they simply make it harder to exist as an unhoused person. They are part of a system that traps people in a cycle of poverty, fines, incarceration, criminal records that create barriers to housing and employment, and subsequently deeper poverty. Criminalization makes it harder for people to escape homelessness.