BY ANDY BARTON
Increasingly, in social settings like dinner parties, the person I am talking to will take a serious tone and say something along the lines of: “This homelessness seems to be getting out of hand.” Then, with a manner that is genuine in both concern and resignation, they will ask: “What can possibly be done about it?” I have found over the years that my answer to that question takes far too long. After a while, there is a glance at a watch or scan of the room for other conversations. The reasons for homelessness, and the poverty that causes it, make for bad dinner party conversation.
I should respond with the one-word solution to homelessness that is as true as it is basic: housing. Any problem defined by the absence of something should be solved by the restitution of that thing. Remove the “less” and you have “home.” Problem solved. That response sounds trite and condescending in conversation but, the lack of housing is a strikingly infrequent observation in both informal and formal discussions about homelessness.
Housing is a difficult concept to fully conceive, not because it is too complicated but because it is so fundamentally ingrained in our understanding of civilization. Having long ago abandoned, or colonized, any semblance of nomadic life in Western culture, a stable place to live exists as the single most fundamental aspect of human life. To not have those four walls and a roof is to be relegated to some primal version of ourselves and it becomes almost impossible for those who have never experienced it to fathom what it is to be without a home. People can empathize with being hungry or sick or cold or addicted because they are human conditions that we may experience in glimpses regardless of our financial state: it is much harder to imagine and easier to take for granted, having a roof over our heads.
Challenging the conversation, even more, is the fact that housing has become so intimately tied to our free-market economy. Our homes are both an outcome and a source of wealth. That principle is further extended to individuals and corporations that derive profit from housing through leasing. There is an inextricable conflict present if a basic human need is simultaneously a source of human wealth. One side stands to gain by the increased cost of something another human being must have. Yet to suggest that an owner be compelled to offer housing without compensation and earnings aligns with a socialist doctrine that is as impractical in theory as it is in reality.
The Church provides a philosophical solution to this conflict. It is central to Christ’s teaching but was called out as it relates to the relationship between making money and caring for people by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Pope Pius XI granted the importance of economic activity but stressed the need for connection with morality. Later, the authors of The Social Doctrine of the Church cited Pope John Paul II writing in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in his assessment that “The growth of wealth… and the moral demands of an equitable distribution of these, must inspire man and society as a whole to practice the essential virtue of solidarity.”
The Church resolves the conflict between the fundamental human need for housing and the free market impacts by stating that there must be some distribution of wealth back into society to address the struggles of our poor and vulnerable. An owner is not expected to provide housing at no profit but sharing that profit is instrumental in maintaining the common good. In today’s market that distribution should be greater than ever because providing and developing residential housing has never been more lucrative. According to Rent.com, the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs has risen 15% over the past year to $1,271. While that growth in rent is good for owners, it is almost impossible for low-income earners and impossible for someone who is homeless. At just over $15,000 a year that median rent represents more than half the annual income for someone working a full-time job that pays $15 an hour. While housing vouchers can offset the financial strain for low-income renters, supply and demand are such that landlords and management companies are able to prioritize renters who do not need subsidies. Renters holding vouchers have few, if any, options.
There are some who say that we cannot build our way out of this housing crisis and it is true that other interventions are critical, but the supply of low-income housing is far too low which is allowing the market to push down on those living at the margins. Building more options, either through new construction or renovation, is expensive but not unachievable and November’s election gives Colorado voters the opportunity to make this kind of impact by voting “yes” on Proposition 123. This initiative adds much-needed financial resources to the efforts to increase the supply of low-income housing by setting aside 0.1% of income taxes to fund affordable housing programs administered by the state through the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA).
The passage of Proposition 123 will not be enough to stem the crisis of housing on its own. At some point, we must allocate other funding streams, especially philanthropy, to help increase supply and to fund supportive services that are so critical for the hardest to house. But this initiative is an impactful step in addressing this core issue.
There is a very real sense of helplessness that comes when contemplating what we can do about homelessness which, I suppose, is why it will come up at dinner parties. Most people understand the challenges and agree on the same issues. We have too many people living on the streets. Too many people live out of tents or cars. Too many homeless children. And not enough housing. The solution is not simple or cheap, but it is clear.
Andy Barton is the President and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado. This article first appeared in the Colorado Catholic Herald.