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The Great Eliminator: How Ronald Reagan Made Homelessness Permanent 

Wednesday, Jun 29 2016
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At Christmastime 1982, fed-up religious leaders called a press conference.

The Rev. Paul Moore, New York City's Episcopal bishop, was furious. Standing next to Methodist and Catholic bishops, a rabbi and a Muslim, Moore laid into the source of his ire: President Ronald Reagan.

At the time, there were 36,000 homeless people on New York's streets, a scene repeated in cities across the country, including San Francisco. But this new wave of needy was different. Instead of the single men with drinking problems who'd populated the hotels and alleys of South of Market after World War II, there were factory and office workers who had lost their jobs in the recent global recession slumped in doorways next to Vietnam War veterans. There were women, children, families.

During a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1981, his first year in office, the new president — who would use the recession as an excuse to cut taxes and slash government spending to spark growth, the infamous "Reaganomics" — presented a solution to homelessness, an issue seen at the time as a temporary problem that would soon cycle itself away, just as it had several times before.

In classic small-government fashion, Reagan's fix did not involve government. If only "every church and synagogue would take in 10 welfare families" each, the president said, the problem could be weathered until it passed. It was a truly conservative approach, reminiscent of how homelessness was addressed in the 19th century.

And it was "absolute balderdash," said the Rev. Moore, according to a Dec. 25, 1982 United Press International wire story picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle. The responsibility for dealing with homelessness wasn't the church's — it was the state's, the bishop said, just as it had been since the Great Depression.

"Housing the homeless and feeding the hungry is the responsibility of the public sector," he said. "They should have a permanent policy whereby homeless persons would have a place to live."

People like then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch needed to stand up to people like Reagan and demand more help. After all, cities received the bulk of the money used for social programs like housing and welfare from the federal government.

"Don't shirk your responsibility," said Moore, addressing both the president and mayor.

Faced with a glut of poor people huddled on the streets with nowhere to live and nowhere to go — many of them war veterans, others unemployed workers struggling to adapt to a changing labor market that no longer needed their skills — city leaders in Chicago decided to take action.

They would keep a "large building heated through the night to house the homeless poor," according to headlines printed in newspapers across the country, including the San Francisco Chronicle, whose readers were also living in one of the great waves of homelessness in American history.

That was in 1869.

To better understand why people are experiencing homelessness today and why solutions have been so hard to come by, it's worthwhile to look at what put them there — and why other periods of homelessness in America eventually ended.

Tramps, vagabonds, hobos: whatever you call them, people without stable living situations have appeared in waves several times in American history.

During the Revolutionary War, it was itinerant workers, the "wandering poor" of an agricultural society reliant on worker mobility. Before the Civil War, it was unemployed mill workers, dockworkers, and miners, displaced by business cycles or changes in society caused by the introduction of a rail line or telegraph station.

After the Civil War, when a credit-fueled railroad boom went bust, breaking banks and killing jobs — the "Panic of 1873," capitalism's first major worldwide economic downturn, known as the "Great Depression" until the bigger Great Depression in the 1930s — it was freed slaves and veterans, whose wartime habits of foraging (or sometimes pillaging) the countryside for food and provisions introduced the words "tramp" and "bum" to the lexicon.

During the Great Depression, with unemployment at 25 percent and large swaths of agricultural land turned to literal dust by a combination of drought and over-farming, as many as 5 percent of Americans were homeless.

Almost always, it was temporary. As soon as the economy recovered, homeless people recovered, too. They went back inside and resumed normal lives. In the meantime, there was a safety net.

For colonial Americans living under English tradition, the community or local parish was responsible for poor residents. In the 19th century, religious and other charitable organizations offered almshouses where lodging and food were available in return for work. During the Great Depression, with one-quarter of cities offering no homeless services, responsibility shifted to the federal government, which provided job training, education, food, and housing.

Thirty-six years after the Rev. Moore called out President Reagan at Christmastime in 1982, there are now more than 60,000 homeless people in New York City.

That's more per capita than any other city in America except San Francisco, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

By the time Reagan took office, HUD was the main federal agency that offered housing and other programs aimed at helping poor and working-class people.

And beginning under Reagan but continuing with the next three presidents, HUD would see its funding reduced. By the time George W. Bush took office, it had been slashed almost 60 percent.

Reagan — who famously could not recognize Samuel Pierce, his own HUD secretary, and failed to recognize and halt a scandal in which HUD money was funneled to Republican consultants rather than building and repairing low-income-housing — didn't shirk his responsibility.

He abdicated it, a wholesale abandonment that signaled the near-end of the federal government's role in managing homelessness and housing policies, a legacy carried on by every American president since.

"Homelessness has been a persistent and enduring feature in American history," wrote retired HUD researcher Walter Leginski in 2007. "While there have been temporary lulls, from colonial times forward there has been no period of American history free of homelessness."

But unlike in other eras, "the contemporary wave of homelessness has not subsided during good economic times."

In San Francisco, unemployment stands at a near-record low of 3.1 percent, yet there are officially more than 3,505 people living on the street — more than at any other time over the past 10 years, including during the height of the Great Recession. (Prior to the subprime crisis, when 20 percent of properties in foreclosure were rental properties, more than 1 million of the country's 2.5 million to 3.5 million homeless were employed.

(There are almost certainly many more. Homeless counts are notoriously inaccurate. The city's "official" count of 7,539 homeless people in 2015, for example, counted only 853 youths at a time when San Francisco public schools reported over 2,300 homeless children in school. This is because the federal definition of homeless does not include people living in hotel rooms or doubling up with friends or family. Nationally, in 2015, homeless counts found 222,197 homeless households with at least one child, while the Department of Education reported 1.2 million homeless children in schools. )

The divestment that began under Reagan can help explain why what was once a cyclical phenomenon, in tune with the boom-and-bust of the nation's economy, is now a permanent urban fixture — which, in the years since the subprime meltdown turned swaths of suburbia into ghost towns, has spread out of cities.

Under Reagan, federal spending on subsidized housing — including state-owned public housing, in which the poor and working class can live for a set percentage of what income they have; and housing vouchers, in which the government helps close the gap between the cost of housing and a person's ability to pay — dropped from $26 billion to $8 billion, barely enough to maintain the government's existing stock of public units.

As much a champion of conservatives as he is nemesis and near-Antichrist for liberals, Reagan's influence is seen in every tent encampment in San Francisco.

"Every park bench in America — everywhere a homeless person sleeps — should have Ronald Reagan's name on it," says Peter Dreier, an urban policy analyst and the director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

But Reagan is not solely to blame. Other American presidents are at fault — in fact, everyone who has come since.

As with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, other nations around the world have signed onto international treaties that declare housing a basic human right.

And as with widely agreed upon commitments to cut pollution like the Kyoto Protocol, the United States has never ratified the international treaties guaranteeing its citizens a right to housing, which is still in most places in America a barely regulated commodity. It's also in short supply, making low-income residents' hold on it even more tenuous.

Bevan Dufty was San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's first homeless czar, a post he held from January 2012 until late last year. At first, most of the homeless people Dufty met were the "chronically homeless" — the kind of people who had been on the streets for years.

Toward the end, "you saw everything," he said. "I met people who had lost their apartment within the last two to three months."

The one factor in common, however, was a traumatic event: a bad illness, a relationship ending, loss of a job, an eviction, or being the victim of a violent crime (domestic violence survivors, for example, suffer higher rates of homelessness).

"Something happened, and there wasn't a safety net," Dufty said.

Beginning in the Great Depression, Americans looked to the federal government for that safety net. And for most of the 20th century, federal assistance wasn't only for poor people; it created wealth and gave a foundation for a middle class.

After World War II, eight out of 10 American men were eligible for no-money-down home loans from the Federal Housing Administration under the G.I. Bill.

Forty percent of all mortgages issued in 1946 and 1947 went to veterans. There was clear racial discrimination — white veterans received more housing mortgages than black veterans, who were subjected to racially motivated tactics such as redlining. But if the lasting legacy for veterans of the War on Terror is PTSD, for their grandfathers coming home victorious from Europe and the Pacific, it was a house.

Those unable to purchase their own home could still rely on the government to help house them. Construction of public housing boomed in America following World War II, and was used by working-class individuals and families on their way to the middle class. (Mayor Lee lived in public housing in Seattle; as one of six children raised by a single mother, it's not inconceivable for someone in that situation today to end up homeless.)

Never perfect, public housing has been all but orphaned by the government. Today, there are about 1.2 million units of public housing in the United States, far less than the U.K. and France, where the state owns 11 percent and 16 percent of the total housing stock, respectively.

In 1976, the year Reagan first ran for president, the outgoing administration of President Gerald Ford asked Congress to fund 506,000 new low-income housing units, including 400,000 rent vouchers to pay for privately owned housing in the Section 8 program. That was the high-water mark for federal assistance. Under Reagan, funding for new subsidies dipped below 100,000 units per year.

By the time President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act in 1996, fewer than 9,000 units were funded. Federal funding has since recovered, but the timing of the cuts coming during the current homeless crisis's beginnings could not have been worse.

"If we had provided 500,000 additional low-income units every year since 1976, we would now have about 14 million families living in federally assisted low-income housing," the National Low Income Housing Coalition wrote in 2002. "But we moved in the opposite direction, and so now there are still more very-low-income renter households with 'worst case' housing needs than there are families living in federally subsidized, low-income housing."

This is strongly felt in San Francisco, where local government has adapted to the Reagan-inspired federal exit from housing by handing over operation of public housing to nonprofit housing providers. (In the past few years, nonprofits like John Stewart Company, which manages the former military housing in the Presidio, has taken over management of once-notorious housing projects like the rebuilt Hunters View; other dilapidated public housing projects, like Sunnydale in Visitacion Valley, are still waiting for private investors to fund a rebuild before nonprofits take over.)

The demand is clearly here — and it will never be met. In early 2015, homeless families were given the opportunity to sign up for the chance at a public housing unit, the first time in six years the wait list for public housing in San Francisco was opened up. More than 10,000 families signed up for a chance at one of fewer than 200 units.

The wait list for a Section 8 voucher, which a low-income tenant can use to cover the growing difference between his or her means and market rate rents, is even longer.

"We had 9,000 Section 8 vouchers," Dufty says. "That's the same number we had 15 to 20 years ago. There's been no expansion of it."

With the federal government's safety net disappearing, local governments are tasked with filling in the gaps with far fewer resources — and not just for housing. With Reagan-admiring Republicans in Congress, federal money for other infrastructure like transportation has vanished, forcing vital regional resources like BART to turn to local voters to ask for tax increases to fund routine maintenance.

To his credit, Mayor Lee announced a plan to build or fix up 10,000 affordable housing units by 2020. That's something. But more than half of those are the old public housing units virtually abandoned by the federal government — nearly all of which already have tenants.

During his State of the Union address in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a "Second Bill of Rights," which included the "right of every American to a decent home."

Roosevelt died in office the following year, but in the post-World War II era of unity that saw the formation of the United Nations, his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw housing included as a basic human right alongside food, clothing, and medical care in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

America's recognition of that right appears to have died along with FDR — a true example of American exceptionalism in a world that has repeatedly affirmed housing as a basic right alongside food and medical care.

A later UN declaration in 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, codified this. The UN's member nations — including the U.S., a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the UN's host nation — signed an agreement that "recognize[d] the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family," including housing. Though the U.S. signed the treaty, the Senate never ratified it, making America one of only two UN member states to fail to ratify, along with Thailand.

The U.S. has either failed to sign or failed to ratify at least six other international treaties in which housing was declared a human right.

Other nations have taken notice and tried to get our attention. In 2006, the government's response to the housing disaster in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina elicited comparisons to apartheid South Africa.

When given the opportunity in 2009, Shaun Donovan, President Barack Obama's former HUD secretary, shied away from declaring housing a human right.

In 2010, the UN Human Rights Council subjected the U.S. government to a first-ever review. UN envoys heard testimony across the country, and housing was the "No. 1 human rights issue" mentioned, according to the State Department.

Despite the testimony and the obvious gap between housing stock and population in the country, the U.S.'s official report to the Human Rights Council "carefully sidestep[ped] naming housing and other economic and social rights as rights," the National Law Center on Housing and Poverty found. Roosevelt's speech was cited, but the housing element was ignored.

That same year, Obama released the first-ever federal "Strategic Plan to End Homelessness" — which contained no action plan and no funding. The safety net was gone, and with a modest tweak to health care barely surviving a Republican-controlled Congress, it is never coming back.

Reagan's reputation as the Great Communicator extended beyond his telegenic speeches and movie star good looks. His team was responsible for the "Morning in America" political ad campaign, possibly the most famous re-election spots in the country's history.

The commercials depicted an idealized America full of flag-raising workers with nothing but opportunity in front of them. The first scene in the commercial is of a fishing boat bobbing in San Francisco Bay at dawn.

In reality at the time, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was a harsh critic of Reagan. She laid the blame for the Bay Area's growing homeless population — 20,000 people across five counties at that time — squarely at his feet.

"When it started, it was looked at as an emergency phenomena, something that was going to pass ... a phenomenon of high unemployment and families that weren't able to maintain a house and a car payment," Feinstein told the Chronicle in 1987. "It's emerged into a whole subculture. A potpourri of many different things. Everything from frail elderly to drug abusers to alcoholics to women with children to single men to AIDS victims to the mentally ill ... and that's a direct result of Ronald Reagan's policies."

If the federal government had responded to the most-recent homeless crisis with more housing or more funding rather than less, San Francisco might look more like Utah. That state cut its population of "chronically homeless" — someone without a home for lengthy periods of time — by more than half simply by giving them housing.

Instead, Reagan took it away — and then engaged in character assassination.

In early 1984, the year he was re-elected in a landslide, Reagan appeared on Good Morning America to defend his record. The "people who are sleeping on the grates ... the homeless ... are homeless, you might say, by choice," Reagan said. They — not him — were to blame for their own situation.

This was Reagan's other lasting legacy. While continuing his budget policies, other politicians also followed his formula of blaming and demonizing the homeless for their situation, even in San Francisco.

In 1991, when Mayor Art Agnos was unseated by former police Chief Frank Jordan, Agnos' "main criticism ... is that he has been too kind to the homeless, not forcing them from parks as other cities have done and urging restraint on the police department," The New York Times reported that year.

Jordan was elected, and police started cracking down on the homeless, driving them from the temporary encampment Agnos allowed in front of City Hall. Other quality-of-life laws targeting homeless behavior followed. In 2010, midway through Mayor Gavin Newsom's vaunted 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, voters approved a new law outlawing lying or sitting on sidewalks.

San Francisco police now spend $18.5 million a year responding to over 50,000 911 calls and other demands for service from the public directly related to homelessness. This fall, local politicians — including Supervisor Mark Farrell, a 2019 mayoral hopeful, and state Senate hopeful Supervisor Scott Wiener — will ask voters to approve a law giving police the ability to clear a tent encampment within 24 hours.

Reagan, were he alive, would surely approve. He would definitely recognize the landscape. It's just as he left it.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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