New York City’s new mayor, Democrat Eric Adams, has effectively declared war on the unhoused population of the nation’s largest city. He has overseen the clearing of at least 239 homeless encampments, claiming that his goal is to move the unhoused into so-called “safe-haven” sites that offer temporary off-street housing. But after those 239 sites had been cleared, only five people actually checked in to any of those sites, meaning that all the clearings really do is move people from one public space to another.
In a city of 8.8 million people, at least 47,000 people are unhoused. Many sleep in subway stations and subway cars, in parks, or on the streets – often covered in cardboard and rags on freezing winter nights. Unhoused people have always been targeted by city politicians and the police. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had a notoriously “tough on crime,” law-and-order approach that criminalized unhoused people and sanctioned police harassment of the city’s poorest people. Similarly, former Mayor Bill de Blasio cleared an estimated 9,000 encampments during his eight year tenure as mayor. Mayor Adams is continuing this trend.
Dozens of cities throughout the U.S. are doing the same thing. This isn’t just a problem of callous, inhumane politicians or an uncaring public. This is a systematic problem of the capitalist system. Under capitalism, housing is not created or distributed according to what humans or communities actually need, but according to the need of corporations and banks to make profits. When one unhoused woman on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was asked what it would take to get her to leave the streets, she said “An apartment! Housing is the solution to homelessness…I’m not crazy, I don’t need to be committed, I don’t need drug treatment — I need housing. Affordable housing. When are we gonna see housing?” Most unhoused people are in the same situation: give them a long-term space of their own, with a bath and kitchen, and they will likely choose to stay there.
In cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others, where luxury apartments are being built by the tens of thousands and fetching insane prices, there are very few affordable apartments. Yet there are vacant homes, lots, apartments, hotels, and old buildings and factories that could be repurposed for affordable housing. In fact, many of these old properties already are being repurposed – but as luxury homes for the very wealthy!
The only obstacle to ensuring housing for all, is that affordable housing is not profitable for the landlords and developers who dominate urban politics. The same is true for all goods and services: whether it is food, quality education, healthcare, or housing – there is more than enough wealth to go around. But distributing the wealth equitably would threaten the profits of a tiny number of rich capitalists.
This profit-driven capitalist system leaves over half a million people unhoused in the U.S. every year. How long will we allow this insanity to continue?