Blame Reagan for Homelessness

by on June 20, 2016

On June 29, Bay Area media will provide a special one-day focus on homelessness. Ideally, the coverage will fill in a major media reporting gap: the failure to hold specific politicians accountable for causing and perpetuating widespread visible homelessness in the United States.

This lack of political accountability explains why a crisis that emerged in 1982 has never gotten an adequate response.  And when I talk about accountability I mean identifying the politicians who have stopped the funding of affordable housing necessary to end homelessness.

That’s very different from blaming local officials for encampments and other ensuing problems. The media is good at that. It’s like reporting on bodies being pulled out of a river without looking upstream for what is causing their deaths. Until specific national politicians are publicly blamed for not funding housing, homelessness will continue.

Reagan Caused Homelessness

Homelessness emerged during the Reagan Administration.  Reagan’s drastic housing cuts in 1981 turned a worsening urban affordability crisis into the nation’s worst mass homelessness since the Great Depression.

As Peter Dreier has noted, “in the 1980s the proportion of the eligible poor who received federal housing subsidies declined. In 1970 there were 300,000 more low-cost rental units (6.5 million) than low-income renter households (6.2 million). By 1985 the number of low-cost units had fallen to 5.6 million, and the number of low-income renter households had grown to 8.9 million, a disparity of 3.3 million units.”

The disparity between households needing housing subsidies and the number receiving federal assistance has continued to grow. Yet many in the media continue to express confusion as to why homelessness has continued, as if the failure to provide sufficient federal housing assistance to those who cannot afford housing was either too easy or obvious an answer.

When homelessness reemerged in 1982, early media coverage did connect the crisis to Reagan’s abandonment of federal housing funding. But when   Reagan budget cuts were not reversed, this outrage became old news. The media sought new answers, and as I describe in The Activist’s Handbook the primary new slant was blaming individuals themselves for being homeless.

That there were fewer housing units in urban areas then there were people became irrelevant; now the issue was “problem street behavior.” This explanation gave politicians and the public a pass for not funding housing, because the story went that homeless people “chose” their status. This story worked even though there was no evidence that substance abuse or mental health problems had increased in the 1980’s; the difference, of course, was that people with such problems could previously afford housing or got a federal subsidy to be housed.

With Reagan defunding of housing “old news,”  media coverage of homelessness focused  instead on what mayors were doing. If you review the San Francisco media coverage of Camp Agnos and Frank Jordan’s “matrix” program, you rarely hear about the federal government’s lack of action or even that it had any responsibility for the crisis.

From Clinton to Obama

So if Reagan caused homelessness, why didn’t Bill Clinton or Barack Obama try to end it? The Clinton Administration never saw affordable housing as a priority. It took office during an economic downturn and its focus was economic revitalization, not adding to the federal housing budget.

The media ignored Clinton’s failure to dramatically increase the homeless budget during his first two years when Democrats also controlled Congress.When Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party took over the House in the 1994 elections, any hope for major increases in affordable housing spending were gone.

I was very involved in trying to create a National Housing Trust Fund toward the end of the Clinton Administration, and we got a lot of media support. We made progress after Andrew Cuomo became HUD Secretary, ironic given how disappointing he has been in dealing with homelessness as Governor of New York.

But affordable housing and homelessness was completely off the radar during the 2000 presidential election. And the media has kept it out of every presidential debate in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.  Bernie Sanders talked about a lot of issues during his 2012 campaign, but his standard stump speech does not mention increasing federal housing funding. Neither he nor Hillary Clinton were asked about homelessness in any of their debates.

Barack Obama also took office during an economic crisis, and vastly expanding affordable housing funding to reduce homelessness was not seen as a top priority. When Republicans took control of the House in 2010, any chance of dramatically increasing federal housing spending was gone for the balance of Obama’s term.

Once the national and local media gave Reagan a pass for not addressing homelessness, a pattern was established of not holding federal politicians accountable. And when politicians are not held accountable for homelessness, they instead devote resources to the issues where the media is focusing.

If that seems too simple an explanation for three decades of homelessness, this is a problem that lacks a complex answer. Ending homelessness is not like finding a cure for cancer. From the 1949 National Affordable Housing Act to the early 1980’s the United States knew how to prevent homelessness. But when the federal government abandoned its responsibility, the predictable result occurred.

So I look forward on June 29 to stories about  what politicians like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate head Mitch McConnell are doing to end homelessness—and interviews with both explaining why they are not significantly adding to the federal housing budget.

It’s not too late to hold the powerful accountable. Homelessness is a political problem, and the public must know which politicians are to blame.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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