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Housing crisis

A Supreme Court case questions what communities can do about homelessness. One side wants to prohibit “sleeping with so much as a blanket in any public space.” The homeless would still be homeless, perhaps sent to hospitals, jails or somebody else's park, lawn or street. That gets the homeless out of sight and out of mind without solving homelessness.

Some say they hate politics. But all positions, including avoiding the issue, are political and determine what happens to the homeless.

To solve the housing crisis we’d have to pay, build, rezone, change building codes, or somehow share the space. But there’s plenty of resistance to doing any of those. Too many prefer not to see, hear or interact with the poor. Unfortunately, problems don’t disappear by magic. And keeping the poor away from the rest of us is a form of segregation that makes poverty equally damaging when practiced on the poor of any race – blocking people from food, medical care, jobs, productive neighborhood networks, better schools, and makes it harder to find the services they need. Everything we fear becomes worse when we segregate people and concentrate their problems. And by the way some of the homeless work full time.

I would gladly participate in any shared solution – pay a few extra tax dollars to subsidize, build,[1] rewrite building codes to welcome more to our neighborhoods, or combine environmental improvement with housing codes that bring us closer together and make it possible to walk to stores and reduce the distance to get to whatever we need to use. I don’t count on segregation to keep away people I wouldn’t like. I know from experience that lovely and horrible people come in all packages. As I walk around I get smiles, greetings, even help when I need it from people of every description.

But democracy requires compromise. We face dangerous backlash against change and helping the impoverished. So I’d prefer to leave a lot of discretion with local communities about how to solve the problem so that backlash doesn’t get worse. But the reality is that local communities can’t solve the homelessness problem by themselves. Somehow we need ways of sharing the problem and sharing the solutions.

I had the privilege of working for a collateral descendant of George Mason who played a major role in the construction of our state and national constitutions in the Revolutionary era. There’s a lot to praise and to criticize about George Mason, but as Madison recorded his comments, it’s important to hear and understand what Mason told the Constitutional Convention:

We ought to attend to the rights of every class of the people. He had often wondered at the indifference of the superior classes of society to this dictate of humanity & policy, considering that however affluent their circumstances, or elevated their situations, might be, the course of a few years, not only might but certainly would, distribute their posterity throughout the lowest classes of Society. Every selfish motive therefore, every family attachment, ought to recommend such a system of policy as would provide no less carefully for the rights B and happiness of the lowest than of the highest orders of Citizens.

And, as John Bradford, a sixteenth-century evangelical preacher and martyr, said “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We’ll feel much better when we get the job done.

[1] New York has just moved in that direction.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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