Last last year, Philip Alston visited several American cities to assess the living conditions of the country's poorest residents. At the time, Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote of meeting "many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles" and watching "a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to."
Now, Alston has released a full report on the poverty he observed in the United States, including among people experiencing homelessness. "Contempt for the poor has intensified under the Trump Administration," Alston said in announcing the new report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council this month.
Writing about people experiencing homelessness—an epidemic that is particularly acute on the West Coast— Alston concludes that the United States relies on criminalizing homelessness in order to "conceal the underlying poverty problem." Cities enforce laws against sitting or sleeping in public places, panhandling, public urination, and other behaviors that can be difficult for people living outside to avoid. Infractions under these laws can spiral into misdemeanors, warrants, fines, and possible jail time, Alston writes.
Alston also writes about potential health risks associated with homelessness. As The Guardian has reported, about 1,800 people on Los Angeles' Skid Row share just nine bathrooms, a ratio that falls below UN standards for refugee camps.
"Citizens and local authorities, rather than treating homeless persons as affronts to their sensibilities and neighbourhoods, should see in their presence a tragic indictment of community and government policies," Alston writes.
Alston visited cities in California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico. While he did not visit Seattle, the problems he describes are familiar.
At last count, more than 12,000 people were experiencing homelessness across King County, more than half of them living on the streets or in vehicles, tents, and abandoned buildings. Before the latest numbers, King County had the nation's third largest homeless population, behind only Los Angeles County and New York City.
In Washington, criminalizing poverty ranges from laws about panhandling to parking restrictions. In Seattle, nearly 2,300 people live in vehicles, yet most of the city is subject to 72-hour parking rules. That requires people living in cars and RVs to move their vehicles or risk having them towed.
Nationally, the number of people experiencing homelessness is on the rise and it's likely we're underestimating the scale of the problem. Across the U.S. in 2017, about 21 percent of homeless people were children, according to Alston's report.
"Homelessness on this scale is far from inevitable," Alston writes in the report, "and reflects political choices to see the solution as law enforcement rather than adequate and accessible low-cost housing, medical treatment, psychological counseling and job training."
Seattle needs between 10,000 and 25,000 additional units of housing affordable to address the needs of the city's lowest income residents.
Alston's report lays out far-reaching recommendations like reducing mass incarceration, bolstering government benefits for the middle class, recognizing health care as a human right, and finally, in Alston's words, "Get real about taxes."
At the state level, the demonizing of taxation means that legislatures effectively refuse to levy taxes even when there is a desperate need. Instead they impose fees and fines through the back door, some of which fund the justice system and others of which go to fund the pet projects of legislators. This sleight-of-hand technique is a winner, in the sense that the politically powerful rich get to pay low taxes, while the politically marginalized poor bear the burden but can do nothing about it. There is a real need for the realization to sink in among the majority of the American population that taxes are not only in their interest, but also perfectly reconcilable with a growth agenda. A much-cited IMF paper concluded that redistribution could be good for growth, stating: “The combined direct and indirect effects of redistribution — including the growth effects of the resulting lower inequality — are on average progrowth.”