Missouri Representative Cori Bush introduced a resolution this July to address the housing crisis, which has been steadily worsening for decades but came to a head amid the pandemic when widespread layoffs and business closures left low-income families—75% of whom already spent more than half their income on housing before the pandemic—with no way to pay their rent.
As the eviction moratorium expires, the more than 11 million Americans who fell behind on rent are at risk of losing their homes and facing a market with a severe shortage of affordable low-income apartments. It’s too soon to tell how many of those 11 million will end up in shelters or on the streets but homeless service providers around the country are prepping for an influx of tens of thousands of newly homeless people—adding to the existing population of between 560,000 and 1.5 million people without access to housing (depending on which federal department you ask).
What Would the Unhoused Bill of Rights Do?
If passed, the Unhoused Bill of Rights would provide more funding to social programs and abolish discriminatory policies and practices that exclude people from accessing services or exercising their rights on the basis of housing status.
The overarching goal of the resolution is to permanently end the unhoused crisis by 2025. To achieve that, Rep. Cori Bush has proposed diverting $20 billion from defense spending—an amount which represents just 3% of the $750 billion federal defense budget—toward expanding existing social assistance programs, funding the construction of public housing, and bolstering public health measures.
The details of the Unhoused Bill of Rights reflect Bush’s in-depth research on the underlying issues and firsthand experience of homelessness before becoming a congresswoman. In her July 28th press briefing about the resolution, Bush spoke about what this bill of rights means to her. “I care deeply about this issue because I was one of the 1.5 million people who struggled without access to a home.”
Among the provisions laid out in the resolution are calls to:
- Build affordable housing for the lowest income and most marginalized households in the United States
- Provide adequate, accessible permanent housing for all unhoused individuals
- Expand the Section 8 rental assistance program
- Expand nutritional assistance programs like SNAP and remove restrictions on what people can buy with those benefits
- Expand substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence survivor services that help those vulnerable to becoming homeless
- Develop and enforce performance standards and regulations for all public shelters
- Build and maintain public restrooms, hand-washing stations, showers, laundry facilities, and water fountains
- Install more trash cans and increase the frequency of garbage removal from public trash cans
- Repeal the Faircloth Amendment which limits the total number of affordable public housing units that can be built
Why America Needs an Unhoused Bill of Rights
The timing of the resolution comes as the country faces a looming yet entirely preventable crisis of widespread evictions, skyrocketing rents and home prices, and a lack of long-term policy solutions to prevent millions of people from being evicted from their homes.
It’s a crisis long in the making but rarely spoken about as many Americans preferred to believe that homelessness was something that could never happen to them. But, as Bush told the press, “The COVID 19 pandemic has exposed just how many of our neighbors live one missed paycheck away from becoming unhoused.”
Without long-term solutions like those proposed in the Unhoused Bill of Rights, tens of thousands of Americans could soon come face-to-face with the rampant harassment, woefully inadequate support, and overall traumatic experience that the millions of already homeless people currently face in a country that has a history of discriminating against its people on the basis of housing status.
America’s History of Ineffective and Inhumane Policies Targeting Homeless People
Rep. Bush’s new resolution also highlights many of the cruel and, ultimately, ineffective policies that are currently the norm for addressing the homeless population. Rather than providing housing and support to get people off the streets, state and local ordinances have tended toward criminalization instead.
Laws that criminalize mundane activities like sitting, standing, sleeping, eating, or using the restroom are all flawed attempts to erase homeless people from public and private spaces without actually doing anything to solve the problem.
Here’s the tricky thing about human beings, though. Since we inhabit physical bodies, we can’t really be erased by laws. Removing access to basic necessities does not make homeless people disappear. It just makes meeting their needs harder. Criminalizing basic human needs does not make those basic human needs go away. It just makes meeting them more dangerous.
Removing public restrooms and making it illegal to urinate outdoors won’t miraculously cause homeless people to cease needing to urinate. Putting spikes and rocks on the ground and banning sleeping outside won’t miraculously cause homeless people to cease needing to sleep.
You cannot legislate a human out of existence. Trying to do so just makes their existence even more precarious than it already was.
That precarious existence isn’t just their own problem, either. Criminalizing homelessness is expensive. Taxpayers are spending between $35,000 and $150,000 per year per homeless person on ineffective methods like policing people who are sleeping in their cars or covering the medical expenses for people who get sick because they don’t have access to nutritious food or hygiene facilities to prevent infections and other diseases.
So, taxpayers are spending millions each year and diverting hospital, police, and court resources toward harassing homeless people—and in the end, homeless people still exist and the number of people ending up on the street continues to grow each year.
The Case for Making Housing a Human Right
Aside from the moral argument that helping people in need is more humane than punishing them for having needs, making housing a human right also makes legal and fiscal sense. In places that have implemented a “housing first” policy—one where homeless people are given housing first and then connected with social services once they’re off the street—the overall cost to taxpayers ends up being drastically lower.
Instead of $35,000 to $150,000 per year per homeless person, taxpayers in these places are spending just $12,800 per year per homeless person to provide housing. Additionally, other costs are reduced as well since incarceration rates and emergency medical care both decline as people are given access to safe, clean places to live.
Costs and moral arguments aside, guaranteeing basic necessities like housing doesn’t just improve the lives of the most vulnerable. While homeless people are most urgently in need of this kind of legislation, everyone stands to benefit from an increase in truly affordable housing, improved public health, more welcoming and comfortable public spaces, and more resources to treat the root causes of crime like poverty and addiction.
A safer, healthier, happier society benefits absolutely every member of that society—in a way that constructing freakishly narrow park benches that nobody can sit comfortably on or removing public water fountains so that homeless people won’t get the bright idea to experience thirst just doesn’t.
What Comes Next for the Congressional Resolution?
Rep. Cori Bush’s bill has been co-sponsored by a handful of fellow Democratic representatives, including progressive allies like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Pramila Jayapal, Mondaire Jones, and Ayana Presley. It’s also endorsed by many leading organizations working to address the homelessness crisis, including the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Homeless Law Center, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Although largely symbolic, the introduction of the resolution is meant to turn Congress’s attention toward meaningfully addressing the crisis and the need for allocating more federal resources to long-term solutions.
The first-of-its-kind federal resolution is part of the Congresswoman’s larger effort to get the policies outlined in this resolution built into other legislation like the upcoming infrastructure deal and budget resolution.
“I will continue to be an advocate,” Rep. Cori Bush stated in her press briefing. “I will also pull in my colleagues to be able to see the nuances that we deal with in trying to address this crisis.”