America’s two homelessness problems
Both are important, but politicians need to be clear which they're trying to solve
Homelessness appears to be on the rise on American cities, though quantitatively, the rise is more modest than most casual observers seem to think.
To an extent, that disjuncture reflects the fact that the homelessness problem is arguably two different things. Or at a minimum, the homelessness problem that the Department of Housing and Urban Development counts and the homelessness problem that middle class city residents complain about are two distinct phenomena.
For example, one evening not too long ago, a seemingly quite disturbed individual was walking up and down our block rather erratically, banging on garbage bins and shouting aggressively but indistinctly. Not long after, a neighbor asked me in passing if I’d heard “the homeless guy” the other night. I said that I had. But what I filed away for future journalism purposes was the reality that while it was clear who we were discussing, neither of us actually had any information about this guy’s housing status.
After all, it had been a perfectly pleasant late summer evening, and lots of people were outside that night. It was late, but not that late. And it’s certainly possible that a guy with a decent place to sleep just happened to have decided it would be fun to walk back and forth, screaming and pounding on trash cans.
Realistically, my guess is that he was homeless.
But I think there’s an important distinction here. Because while scarcity of housing is primarily a housing policy problem, the question of how people conduct themselves on public thoroughfares exists somewhat independently of that. And policymakers and politicians, to some extent, need to decide which problem they are trying to solve.
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