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Homes for the Homeless

Entry 2044, on 2020-05-23 at 21:30:37 (Rating 3, Politics)

A while back I saw the following piece of political rhetoric posted on Twitter: "Landlords do not 'provide' housing. Construction workers provide housing. Landlords, in fact, do the opposite of providing housing. They take the houses that were built for people to live in, hold them hostage for rent, and evict anyone who can't pay."

Here's another one I saw on a similar theme: "In the USA there are about 200,000 homeless people and 320,000 churches. There should be no homelessness here." I must admit, I am doing this one from memory, so the numbers might be a bit off (according to Wikipedia, the number of homeless might be closer to 500,000), but the general sentiment is still valid.

Like many comments of this sort, they are both just partly true. Superficially, it seems that there should be no real need for anyone living in an advanced Western society (you know, the usual suspects: the US and Canada, most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, etc) to not live a full life and miss out on any of the basics of life, but clearly something is wrong, because that isn't the case.

So is it, as the more left-oriented commentators out there might think, the rich who are to blame? Are they using up all the resources (including money, housing, and food) and leaving none for the less fortunate? Well, sure. No doubt that is one element in the equation.

But let's look at it from the other extreme. Are those on the right who say that the poor deserve to be poor because they waste money, don't work hard, or haven't bothered to learn useful skills. I think that is also a factor. There are undoubtedly people who live in poor conditions because they waste all their money gambling, are too lazy to get a job, or have too many kids.

So yet again, when asked whether the left or the right are correct about this situation, I say "yes", but also "no". In other words, they are both right and wrong to some extent, and which is the more correct, I could not say.

From a philosophical perspective I do find the idea of one person demanding payment for what should be a basic human right (decent housing) somewhat disturbing. And I also think of all those empty churches in the US which, if they gave shelter for just one homeless person each, could solve the homelessness problem. In fact, the churches are particularly abhorrent because a basic tenet of most religions (especially Christianity, which is what the vast majority of those churches would be dedicated to) is to help the poor. Isn't that what Jesus would do?

At least we know that landlords (or the alternative, non-sexist term that the UN wants us to use: "owner") are there for the money, so we shouldn't have any expectations of higher ideals from them. The churches seem far more hypocritical given that they appear to be embodying the exact opposite of their stated philosophical position of charity.

I have to say here that I'm not anti-capitalist. There are places where capitalism can produce good outcomes, and I understand that markets can work very efficiently, but I mean directed markets here, not completely free markets which tend to pursue antisocial objectives.

But what real advantage does private enterprise provide in supplying houses? I think guided markets can be useful in producing new housing, but it is people who buy existing houses with the intent of renting them for profit where things can go wrong. So the rhetoric about landlords not providing housing is actually true. They don't provide houses; they just deal with an existing resource built by someone else and use it to extract money from the most needy. By the way, I understand that some people who are landlords also build houses, but they are a minority.

Now that may seem like an anti-capitalism rant, but I want to emphasise that I have no illusions that socialism is really the answer. As always, I advocate for a system which utilises the best of all possible options. We should use capitalist principles where they make sense, but that shouldn't extend to situations where there is no real added value. Everyone should be able to buy or rent a house, for a moderate price linked to their income, from a non-profit organisation, and the same should apply to other basic essentials, like food.

Note that this isn't such an extravagant suggestion because, we already provide some free essentials to people, like education and health. Also, I do mean we should provide only basic housing and food here; anything extra could be bought on a conventional market, so there is still space for those who excel in society to make more money and have a better than average lifestyle.

One final thing; there would be no need for benefits, pensions, or other government "hand outs" under this system, because everyone would have everything they need. So it might not cost a lot more to implement than what we do now (I haven't done the sums accurately, but my very rough estimate shows it doesn't have to be outlandishly expensive after the savings are accounted for).

And because everyone would qualify for these basic necessities, there would be no negativity attached to accessing them, like beneficiaries might have now. And the more well-off people would not feel resentful because they are subsiding another person's life. It's like a "turbocharged" GMI (guaranteed minimum income), which is something we should all be considering, especially after the collapse of the global economy brought on by the COVID pandemic.

Something needs to change; many say that means the end of capitalism, but I dont think that is likely or desirable. Capitalism has a place, but so does socialism - at least this carefully managed version. We can have homes for the homeless.

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