On the corner of Orms and Park street, alongside the Rhode Island Department of Administration and the Rhode Island Department of Health, a homeless man named Michael has created a shelter for himself. Complete with a tent, a couch, and a sign labeled “Home Sweet Home,” his makeshift homestead covers about 150 square feet. Across the street, a small sitting area and a cacophony of signs are plastered to a fence composing the wall of a bridge. The signs read things like “Separation of church and state” or “Strive for your best, teach by example.” Here is where Michael often idles, waiting excitedly to share the messages behind his signs with interested passersby. When approached, Michael does not appear to be on any drugs or withdrawing from them. Most people end up homeless after expensive medical bills, or after losing their job while already living paycheck to paycheck, not from drugs. Only 26 percent of homeless people use drugs, while 38 percent use alcohol. He speaks eloquently about political and human rights issues, including policy that affects his own situation. He lamented about the police, acting as an apparatus of the state, “making me leave the few belongings I have. I talk to the people who want to talk to me, I’m not bothering anyone here.” Last week, the only sign of Michael’s presence was a small clearing; the police had followed through on their threat to forcibly vacate him from the area.
Michael’s story mirrors the potentially misguided policy that states nationwide have adopted, one that forces the most destitute people in our country from the shelters that provide them with slight comfort in a life of extreme poverty. These governmental actions effectively illegalize homelessness, criminalizing a social status known for its near impossibility to break from without external aid. Thus, rather than provide basic necessities for a tiny portion of the population, states have opted to do their best to even further remove homeless people from society. Rhode Island has a fairly low number of homeless people at about 4,000. The majority live in Providence, with social movements among the homeless leading to an occupation of the state house in the winter of 2022. This number is less than one percent of the total homeless population in America, which is about 582,000. To solve homelessness nationwide by providing housing and social services for homeless people would cost $20 billion. For reference, this is about 2.3 percent of our military budget. Americans spend $15 billion more on gym memberships than it would cost to end homelessness. Since Rhode Island’s homeless population is less than one percent of the total homeless population, it would cost less than one percent of the total cost of eliminating homelessness to end the issue in Rhode Island, amounting to about 190 million. With Rhode Island’s 2024 budget being $14 billion, this would amount to about 1.5 percent of the annual budget. Clearly, the state can easily afford to end homelessness.
Another point brought up by both homeless people and their advocates is that many Americans are only a paycheck away from homelessness. The lower quartile of the American population earns an average of $16,200 annually; for example, a one-bedroom apartment in Providence costs an average of $2,265 a month or $27,180 a year. Add food, which costs an average of $3,700 a year, and your cost of living exceeds the average income for poor Americans by nearly double. This is also excluding things like health insurance, which costs an average of $7,900 per person. America’s poor can no longer afford to live, literally.
When confronted with our domestic homeless crisis, America has two options: it can spend miniscule amounts of its annual budget and eliminate homelessness, or it can criminalize the social condition entirely. Most cities and states have chosen the latter of the two options. With economic austerity and punitive policing clearly doing nothing to alleviate the issue, state governments must consider their methodology in confronting homelessness. When it costs so little relative to annual state budgets, the answer to this conflict should be quite clear.