The national emergency and consequent economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 has exposed one of America’s greatest needs: adequate and safe housing. After a period of decline, in the past three years homelessness has climbed — to 567,715 people as of 2019— and these numbers don’t even capture those who live in substandard or inadequate housing. But with unemployment insurance claims reaching 22 million in the month ending April 16, and even eviction moratoriums not fully protecting renters, the housing crisis in America is likely about to get far worse.
Some communities are rushing to organize ad hoc public housing for the homeless in trailers and RVs, gyms, hotels, fairgrounds, convention centers, tent cities and other similar venues. Proposed closures of jails and prisons, and the expulsion of inmates with no provisions to house them, threatens to expand the numbers of homeless. Advocates are predicting a catastrophic spread of COVID-19 among unsheltered Americans, particularly among single adults, who constitute the largest proportion of the homeless and who are reliant on the shelter system. But the Centers for Disease Control website offers no federal assistance in addressing COVID-19 among the homeless, who often live in close quarters and lack adequate health care, only encouraging local and state governments to seek “partnerships” through “coordination across local sectors.”
The current crisis is a reckoning, but it is not the first time American leadership has had to face this issue. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal plan to pull the nation out of the Great Depression could provide today’s leaders with a model to draw from to prevent the worst from coming true.
Generally, Americans view housing as a privilege, something that is earned. But during the New Deal, President Roosevelt and his advisors embraced the idea that all citizens had a right to a safe, decent and stable home—and that, with local governments struggling with bankrupt budgets, massive unemployment and rapidly spreading poverty, it was the federal government’s obligation to provide shelter to Americans suffering economic misfortune.