Under capitalism, the working class is constantly struggling to make ends meet. Today, in the context of persistent inflation and the erosion of the limited assistance we received during the height of the pandemic, it’s getting even harder for many working people and families to meet our basic needs. The current homelessness crisis is just one illustration of this. The truth is that homelessness is a fundamental feature of capitalism: so long as capitalism treats basic needs like housing as a commodity to be sold for profit, countless people are priced out of a roof over their heads.
In the United States, the richest country in the world, over 500,000 people experienced homelessness in the year 2022. The most oppressed sections of the poor and working class experience this problem even more acutely, with Black Americans making up 37% of the homeless population last year despite making up only 12% of the country’s total population. In New York City, the richest city in the country and one of the most expensive to live in, almost 70,000 people are living on the streets or in shelters, including over 20,000 children. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has increased by about 20% over the last three years, and currently sits above $4,000 per month; which is about $1,200 OVER the average monthly income for someone living in this city.
Billionaires And Corrupt Politicians Caused The Problem And Make It Worse
Working people are constantly squeezed between low wages and rising rents, lining the pockets of the landlords and the billionaires while we struggle to maintain a basic standard of living and resist being pushed out of our neighborhoods by gentrification. The resources that exist are nowhere near enough to meet the scale of the problem. Public resources like city shelter systems are constantly being threatened with austerity and budget cuts, or else are increasingly contracted out to NGOs and private companies, resulting in taxpayers shelling out for the six-figure salaries of sometimes outright corrupt executives with no improvement to the services we receive.
Rather than tax the rich to fund the social services that working people require to live with basic levels of comfort and dignity, the ruling class responds to the homelessness crisis, which they of course created, with nothing but brutality. Very commonly this takes the form of essentially making it a crime to be poor in public, and moving the homeless “out of sight and out of mind,” into our jails and prisons. We saw this with Proposition B in Austin, Texas, which literally added homelessness to the list of Class C misdemeanors in the city’s criminal code, and which was pushed forward by a coalition including representatives of both Democrats and Republicans alongside the police department. Prop B resulted in over 330 people being cited for “crimes” like sitting down in public just within its first year on the books.
The problem of widespread homelessness is also intimately tied to the mental health crisis in this country. Mental healthcare is scarce and inaccessible to swaths of the working class, and the symptoms of many mental illnesses, like depression and schizophrenia, make it extremely difficult to meet the grinding pressures of working life needed to hold down a job or make enough money to cover your rent.
Once again, the ruling class’ tactic is to drastically defund mental health treatment centers, or shut them down altogether, especially those which were accessible to the poor, and instead funnel the severely mentally ill directly into our prisons. This process has been underway for decades, but continues to sharpen as the root causes of our social crises go unaddressed, including recently with the Adams administration in New York vowing to forcibly institutionalize mentally ill people living on the streets.
Our severely underfunded public mental healthcare system in New York will of course be nothing more than another temporary shelter for those struggling with mental illness and homelessness, especially if they didn’t voluntarily choose to receive treatment in the first place, which will no doubt end with people back on the streets and likely in the criminal justice system. This greatly exacerbates these individuals’ level of distress and can lead them to at times behave in a very antisocial, or even dangerous, way.
“Progressive” Democrats like Chicago’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, occasionally start out on the campaign trail pledging to fix these problems, but shy away from “promising any specific policy fix” which would require a direct confrontation with the billionaires and corporate politicians who oversaw the severe degradation of mental healthcare services in this country in the first place.
Real Challenges Threaten to Undermine Working Class Solidarity
It’s clear that the interests of the ruling class are in opposition to ours, and that they will never willingly end the corporate control of the housing market – such a major source of profit – and thereby end homelessness by making housing a common good. But in some ways, what’s potentially even more dangerous than the brutality we constantly experience from the bosses and their political servants is divisions among working-class and poor people who really should be fighting together against our common enemy.
Homelessness and its related problems like crime, drug use, and violence are real social issues in our communities, neighborhoods, and workplaces. No one wants to walk around their city or get on public transportation feeling like they or their loved ones are at risk. All that being true, the only way to really address the homelessness crisis, and poverty more broadly, is through concessions from the ruling class won through the united struggle of workers and oppressed people, and independent political representation of our interests.
The average person in NYC makes around $34,000 per year, while the biggest landlords and developer executives in the city are worth over $20 billion. Our own mayor, the one telling us we can live without libraries and schools, boasts a net worth between $5 and $10 million. Clearly, working class people and families are a hell of a lot closer to being homeless than we are to living among the ranks of the billionaire class or their political servants. But in the advance of such a movement, working class people are more susceptible to supporting “law and order” solutions or even to supporting people taking matters into their own hands as Daniel Penny did in killing Jordan Neely on the subway.
In a vacuum of any real solutions to the crises of homelessness and mental illness, and with many people unsure of what a way forward would look like, there is a real risk that we as working class people lose sight of our shared interests.
The Way Forward: Class Politics and Class Struggle
Corporate politicians from both parties will never offer significant concessions to working people unless they are forced. With over 26 Empire State Buildings’ worth of empty office space in Manhattan, we currently have Eric Adams claiming that we can’t afford to shelter our city’s homeless and immigrant population. We will never win by asking our politicians nicely.
We also will not make significant progress with individual solutions like “being nicer” to the homeless or small-scale donations. While it of course doesn’t hurt to give out a few dollars or some food when we can, the working class simply doesn’t possess the wealth, even collectively, to remedy this situation which has been caused by rampant corporate greed and politicians who put up no opposition to it.
Through our city council office in Seattle, Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative have won landmark victories for renters including a cap on late rent fees at $10, a right to legal counsel in housing court, and millions of dollars in taxes on Amazon’s profits to be spent on affordable housing; the kinds of reforms which address our most immediate concerns, both for the homeless and as working people living in cities increasingly affected by this issue. Victories like these, as well as our ultimate goals of taking housing out of private, for-profit hands, must be fought for on a class basis in our workplaces, on the streets, and through independent political representation in the halls of power.
- EMERGENCY RESPONSE: Immediate conversion of all vacant office space, hotel rooms, and other private property into shelter for the homeless.
- IMMEDIATE RENT CONTROL: Skyrocketing rents are pushing us out of our neighborhoods, and in some cases onto the streets. Fight for rent control now!
- CLASS SOLIDARITY, NOT DIVISIONS: We need a united struggle against brutal encampment sweeps, mass evictions, and to prevent the deaths of people like Jordan Neely, whether at the hands of official state institutions or not.
- TAX THE RICH TO FUND AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Immense wealth is being hoarded in the pockets of the already rich, including the landlords and developers squeezing us for every penny we’re worth just to have a roof over our heads. Billions need to be redirected to fund affordable, green housing in our cities!
- MEDICARE FOR ALL AND FULLY FUNDED SOCIAL SERVICES: Homelessness and poverty are deeply tied to other crises caused by capitalism, like low pay, lack of access to mental healthcare and treatment for drug addiction, underfunded schools, and increased restrictions on assistance like food stamps. Tax the rich to fully fund social services and offer a real chance to escape homelessness!
- BUY-IN FROM THE LABOR MOVEMENT: Workers are often on the front lines of the homelessness crisis, including as public transportation workers, teachers, and nurses. Not to mention that working class people are often precariously close to poverty and homelessness ourselves. Our unions should organize to fight for real, permanently affordable housing, a $25 minimum wage, and should support independent working class candidates who will fight for our interests.
- END FOR-PROFIT HOUSING AND FIGHT FOR A SOCIALIST WORLD: While there are reforms which would offer significant relief to both the homeless and the working class as a whole, we ultimately need a society which is organized according to the needs of the masses, rather than the profits of a few. Join Socialist Alternative to fight for an end to capitalism and a socialist world.