Is Homelessness a Crisis?

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It has become customary to speak of homelessness as a crisis. But is it? To my ears, the word crisis implies a critical point in time, a moment when a shift in circumstances forces people to make decisions of consequence.

By this definition, homelessness is not a crisis. It is serious, but it has also been a problem for decades. It is the opposite of a crisis. It is the status quo, and that actually makes it something far worse. It is the brutal reflection of who we are as a society.

We draw attention to a situation by calling it a crisis. But the problem with this label isn't just its lack of an expiration date. Although the word conveys urgency, it can also mask the entrenched nature of a problem's underlying causes. The forces that have pushed so many out on to the streets have been at work for years.

Furthermore, calling something a crisis invokes a sense of immediacy that places a priority on responding instead of addressing root causes. We mobilize to finds beds with roofs over them, but there are never enough to meet a never-ending tide. Of course, when it comes to public policy there is nothing easier and more obvious than saying that a problem can be solved only by addressing its underlying causes, and nothing more difficult to do in practice.

Finally there is the awkward but unavoidable fact that over the course of a day we may encounter the homeless but we do not experience homelessness ourselves. For the vast majority of us every day ends where it began: at home.


One place to start is to stop viewing homelessness as a failure of our system and instead see it as the logical outcome. We have deindustrialized, but not retrained. We deinstitutionalized without providing an alternative. We subsidize and protect the housing that exists without building the units people can afford. We should not be surprised that there are so many in our midst, and instead consider that there could be so many more.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.