Homelessness “is an issue that we’re going to have to continue to deal with,” Washougal Mayor David Stuebe told members of the Washougal City Council during a recent Council workshop.
“It’s only getting worse,” the small city’s mayor added. “It’s better to be prepared rather than to just keep ignoring it.”
We agree with Stuebe that local Camas-Washougal politicians can no longer ignore the growing number of community members in east Clark County who are struggling to not only make ends meet but to actually afford the basic necessities — shelter, food, clean water, sanitation, clothing and a safe place to sleep — required to sustain human life.
But to truly understand and “deal with” the issue of homelessness, the majority of these political leaders Camas-Washougal residents have elected to protect the needs of the entire community — including those who cannot afford shelter — must first commit to educating themselves about the true root causes of homelessness and about what it will actually take to prevent and solve homelessness instead of simply sweeping people who are struggling to survive away from our parks and sidewalks and into the next jurisdiction or an already overcrowded shelter system.
Far too often, our political leaders treat community members experiencing homelessness as criminals who must be “dealt with,” and never bother to think about either the systemic conditions that have led to a growing homeless population or the actual individuals lumped into that “the homeless” box.
The National Homelessness Coalition (NHC) and other national advocacy groups working to prevent and eliminate homelessness in the United States have pointed out that you cannot address homelessness without also addressing the major factors that lead to people who are forced to live in their car, couch-surf with friends, pitch a tent in a local park or try to sleep on a sidewalk.
Why are people homeless?
“A lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs have contributed to the current housing crisis and to homelessness,” the NHC states on its website, nationalhomeless.org, adding that “homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked, (as) poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care and education.”
Research shows that decades of conservative policies promoted by right-wing media and politicians — namely “trickle-down” economics, anti-tax initiatives that benefit big corporations and our nation’s wealthiest citizens and union-busting — have led to an unbelievable disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our country. According to Pew Research, “the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016. In 1989, the richest 5% of families had 114 times as much wealth as families in the second quintile, $2.3 million compared with $20,300. By 2016, this ratio had increased to 248.”
The research center added that, “not only is income inequality rising in the U.S., it is higher than in other advanced countries.”
We also know that, as an area’s wealth inequality rises, so too does homelessness.
As The Journalist’s Resource reported in April 2021: “Income inequality drives hundreds of people into homelessness on any given night in dozens of communities across the U.S., finds new research in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. A community of 740,000 people where income disparities have risen sharply over the past decade can expect over 550 additional people to experience homelessness on a given night.”
The report noted that “while many housing policy advocates focus on slowing the growth of housing prices, this strategy alone is unlikely to be sufficient in preventing homelessness. It is important to include policies that increase the ability of low-income households to afford housing — for example, increasing the minimum wage, public benefit levels, and the supply of Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers.”
In other words, if we truly want to prevent and end homelessness in our communities, we need to take a very close look at progressive policies that will redistribute our nation’s wealth away from a tiny group that has amassed fortunes they will never be able to spend and back to America’s blue-collar workers, middle-class families and those who may not be able to work a full-time job due to physical or mental health limitations.
As Time Magazine noted in September 2020, “the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers $50 trillion over the past several decades.”
“According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, had the more equitable income distributions of the three decades following World War II (1945 through 1974) merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone,” Time reported. “That is … enough to more than double median income … enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every month. Every single year.”
Local politicians cannot address homelessness without also discussing this issue’s most glaring root causes — including decades of conservative tax and social policies that favor the wealthy over workers.
Luckily, many politicians are beginning to tell the truth about what bringing back fair taxes on the wealthy could do to transform our communities.
Business Insider reported in January of this year, lawmakers in eight states — including Washington state, where a proposal to implement a property tax on residents holding assets worth more than $250 million would raise an additional $3 billion annually to help address this state’s homelessness crisis — are currently trying to pass “wealth taxes to help pay for childcare, affordable housing and ending homelessness.”
As U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic congressperson from Washington’s 7th District, put it: “It’s more important than ever that we use our state legislatures to showcase the incredible opportunity to really skew the scales again, towards working people, not against them.”