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A Right to a Home?

photograph of homeless tents in downtown Los Angeles

Over half a million people are homeless in America. In New York City, shelters overflow as endemic homelessness combines with migrants seeking refuge. Struggling with rising crime and drug use, famously progressive Portland now takes more direct action against its homeless population, such as clearing out camps. California, where almost one third of America’s homeless population lives, is fighting a losing battle against surging housing prices and the societal sequelae of COVID.

Homeless Americans are a diverse population. Some live on the streets, others sleep in shelters, in their cars, or on friends’ couches. Many homeless people work, but find their incomes inadequate to pay for housing. Causes of homelessness are diverse including domestic abuse, disability, mental illness, inadequate pay, and housing prices, but there is little evidence to support the sometimes heard allegation that homelessness is a choice. Unsurprisingly, most homeless people want adequate housing.

But just what is owed to the homeless of America? Is homelessness merely unfortunate, or does it represent a deeper moral failing of the government? Could there even be a right to a home which is currently unfulfilled for so many Americans?

One answer is that nothing is owed to the hundreds of thousands that are currently unhoused. Or at least, nothing special. Nonetheless, such a belief would not preclude the government from helping homeless individuals. For starters, the government may act to ensure that basic rights (e.g., due process of law, expression, security, the right to seek emergency health care) are not unfairly denied to homeless individuals. A government might act further out of compassion, as homelessness often goes hand in hand with poverty, vulnerability, and harm. More calculatingly, a government could be moved by purely practical concerns. Cities can struggle with the impacts of large indigent populations. A government may also want to address homelessness to increase potential productivity, or even the aesthetics of a community.

This may seem callous, but even an “owe nothing” account can take us fairly far. Increasingly popular homeless bills of rights, such as the one recently introduced in Michigan proceed along such lines. The Michigan bill aims to secure rights such as “equal treatment by all state and municipal employees” and “freedom from discrimination in employment.” The core idea is that a particular class of people should not be unfairly discriminated against – that they are owed the same rights as everyone else, and such legislation therefore echoes previous legislation which enshrined women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and racial minority rights.

What such legislation does not do is contend that homeless individuals are owed resources. It is certainly intended to have an alleviatory effect on homelessness, but it does not obligate the government to do anything other than prevent discrimination. A much stronger claim would be homeless individuals are entitled to shelter or perhaps even homes.

Such rights are challenging. More than a mere good thing to do, a right to a home would provide a positive obligation on the government to provide shelter. We rarely think this way. Cars, computers, and smartphones, are also important to the way people live and work, yet few feel that the government owes us these.

Why should the government provide houses? And even if we accept that such a right exists, what exactly is required to fulfill it? Does the government merely need to provide some shelter? Does it have to be nice?

Despite these hurdles, the idea of housing as a right has a long history. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, identifies access to adequate housing as a fundamental right.

One way to approach a right to home is via a famous thought experiment from political philosophy – the veil of ignorance. Imagine a discussion among people trying to design the ideal society. However, there is a major caveat: these individuals do not know who they will be in this society – what characteristics they might possess and what kind of social position they might come to hold. They are behind the veil of ignorance. Consequently, designing a deeply unequal society where many will experience a poor quality of life is a risky proposition. Few would endorse such a society knowing they stand a good chance of receiving the short end of the stick. Instead, these idealized actors may wish to ensure that no matter what kind of life they come to have, they are guaranteed access to certain basic goods, including shelter. Such a thought experiment gives us insight into how we might reason our way to a just society, rather than simply taking what history has given us.

Alternatively, a right to a home might be secured by the pursuit of freedom and equality of opportunity. As the legal theorist Jeremy Waldron has pointed out, homelessness greatly restricts freedom. For starters, everything that is banned in public is, for the homeless, forbidden. Moreover, the material fact of being homeless (and not simply discrimination against homeless individuals) restricts one’s ability to acquire and keep property, raise a family, stay healthy, and seek medical care. Anything that depends on being specific places at specific times, entering private property, or having stable access to a cell phone or computer (keeping cell phones charged is particularly difficult), can be challenged by homelessness and its attendant hardships. If we care about ensuring that all people are in a position to pursue opportunities and better their lives, then a home may not be a goal but rather a prerequisite, and thus something that the government should provide as part of a minimum standard of living.

This moves us away from the idea that a house is simply a resource or good – something to be bought and sold on the market – and towards the idea that the significance of the house is the capabilities it enables.

The right to housing, then, is not simply an entitlement to a structure with certain amenities, but rather a way to satisfy basic needs like privacy and safety.

If one or both of these arguments is compelling, a final concern still needs to be discussed, namely, money. A frequent challenge to rights such as healthcare and housing is that they are bottomless money pits. There is nuance here, with some arguing that addressing homelessness can actually save money long term. Regardless, there is at least the risk that implementing a right to homelessness could be expensive. But this is not a substantive objection to the existence of a right. If it is accepted by a society that there is a fundamental right to housing, then the cost is a secondary consideration. By the same token we do not nullify the right to free speech because we do not always like its consequences. Under both the above accounts, some redistribution of money is justified to secure a more foundational form of fairness.

However, an implementation of a right to a home would have to take seriously that homelessness is caused by more than a lack of houses. Major underlying causes such as soaring housing prices along with addiction, disability, mental illness, and inequality continue to drive people towards homelessness. Additionally, there is an inherent tension between property owners – who want to keep the value of a commodity high – and property seekers; NIMBY sentiment encourages us to simply move the problem elsewhere. If the government does finally commit to housing as a right, that entitlement will have to be secured in the face of these enduring challenges. This may demand more serious societal modifications than simply investing in new construction.

Homeless in Utah, Desperately Seeking a Backyard

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

For more than 60 years, the sprawling Utah State Prison sat nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountain range in Draper, Utah.  The prison was home to such notorious inmates as serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Gilmore, and serial pedophile and cult leader Warren Jeffs.  Utah was the first state to reinstitute the death penalty after the Supreme Court’s moratorium ended in 1973, and the state has since executed 51 people.  In 2015, the Utah legislature made the decision to relocate the prison to West Salt Lake City.  In its place, Draper Mayor Troy Walker proposed to house something that, as it turns out, struck Draper citizens as far more distasteful than even the prison—a shelter for the homeless.

The proposal was part of a plan to disperse the burgeoning 1,100-resident caseload of the The Road Homea homeless shelter located in Salt Lake City.  Walker’s specific proposal was for Draper to take on the responsibility of a subsection of that population—a group of women actively looking for work, and their dependent children.  Explaining his decision to throw Draper’s name into the ring for the site of the new shelter, Walker said, “It’s the right thing to do; it’s the Christian thing to do. It’s the thing that will set us apart and make us the kind of people we are.”

Dutiful to his constituency, Walker held a town hall meeting on the topic at a local middle school.  Nearly 1,000 people attended.  Some of them packed the halls outside of the auditorium to avoid fire code violations.  Video of the meeting that ensued quickly went viral on the Internet.  Attendees of the meeting were overwhelmingly opposed to the relocation of the homeless shelter in their town.  At one, point, a homeless man stood up to testify to his experience with how homeless shelters benefit their charges.  He was booed into silence.

Many watching the situation closely are concerned by the gentrification that they are seeing.  The Salt Lake bedroom community of Draper is becoming more and more upscale. Property on the base of the mountain is prime real estate.   The new site of the prison is near the Salt Lake International Airport and Rose Park, one of the least affluent communities in the area.  Already home to a number of halfway houses, rehab centers, and a parole violator center, Rose Park can expect a new prison instead of the remodeled fairgrounds that they were promised.  The refusal of the homeless shelter seems to be motivated by similar considerations. The “not in my backyard!” mentality seems to entail either a desire for institutions like prisons and homeless shelters to not exist at all, or for their location to be in other, poorer, backyards.

Many moral theories emphasize the value of universalizability.  The idea is that, if you want to ensure that your decision is a moral one, it has to be a decision that you wouldn’t mind if someone else made under circumstances that were sufficiently similar.  If we want to bar homeless shelters from our own communities, we must be comfortable with everyone else barring homeless shelters from their communities as well.  Of course, we can’t do that unless we simply want homeless shelters to no longer exist.  After all, every community is someone’s community.  

Of course, the concerns of the citizens of Draper are not entirely baseless.  Homeless shelters are not good for property values.  Though we don’t want to confuse correlation with causation, it is true that property values are 12.7 percent lower in areas with homeless shelters than they are in other areas (all other things being equal).  Homeowners have obligations to provide for themselves and their families.  Their ability to do this may be compromised if they lose equity in their homes.

Homeowners also have a legitimate interest in their own safety, and the safety of their families.  Mental illness is common among the homeless population, and so is drug and alcohol abuse.  Residents of the area may have justifiable concerns that their communities will be less stable if the homeless population is introduced.

It is worth pointing out, however, that less affluent families living in lower-income communities have the same safety and stability fears as the Draper residents.  If the concerns of the Draper residents are justified, and if those concerns are sufficient for the Mayor of Draper to withdraw his offer of the prison as a location for the needs of the state’s homeless, why aren’t the identical concerns of those living in less affluent communities deserving of equal consideration?

Let’s not forget the plight of the homeless population.  Many moral philosophers have suggested that the best measure of the morality of a society is the way the least advantaged members of that society are treated.  Booing a homeless person into silence at a town hall meeting doesn’t say anything good about the society in which that kind of thing happens.

There is a silver lining to this cloud, however.  Though this particular situation suggests that there is room for some serious character development on the part of many Utah citizens, Utah has been making international news in a more positive way for a different approach to homelessness.  Implementing a novel new approach called “Housing First,” Utah has reduced homelessness by 72 percent over nine years.  The idea behind this approach is to do what the name suggests—provide housing to homeless people right away, without making that housing contingent on mental health or sobriety.  When dealt with in this way, 88 percent of the homeless population remains in the housing a year later, at a cost to the state less than it incurred when the homeless people were on the street.

The success of the Housing First program suggests a need to change our collective mindset toward the homeless, and perhaps about access to crucial human goods and services as well.  It makes sense, not just from a legal perspective, but also from a moral perspective, to attend to the basic needs of all human beings, especially those that are much less fortunate than the rest of us.

Loitering, Jaywalking, Mopery: Crime or Punishment?

Food Not Bombs, a grassroots organization focused on food justice, are facing their second round of legal battles this month after their demonstration in Tampa, Florida, that led to the arrests of seven activists. Other organizations in Tampa have faced similar action or threats by the local authorities over their illegal behavior – feeding homeless people in a public place without a permit.

Continue reading “Loitering, Jaywalking, Mopery: Crime or Punishment?”

Trouble in paradise? Hawaii’s homeless population faces problematic legislation

The politics surrounding treatment of homeless populations has long been an area of ethically problematic legislation. The latest conflict in this trend can be seen in Hawaii, where officials are considering legislation that will move the homeless away from tourist areas. The proposals will also criminalize “sitting, lying down, defecating and urinating on sidewalks in Waikiki and other public places.”

Continue reading “Trouble in paradise? Hawaii’s homeless population faces problematic legislation”