The mainstream media does not wish to address the fact that across the United States many governmental agencies are dealing with poverty by making it a criminal offense.  At least thirty municipalities have passed laws making it illegal to feed the homeless. Barriers, such as spikes, are being constructed under bridges; homeless people are rounded up and jailed or unceremoniously dumped outside the city limits. Perhaps the most extreme example of this loathing of the homeless was demonstrated in December of 2013. Hawaii state representative Tom Bower, declaring he was “disgusted” by Waikiki’s homeless problem, decided the thing to do was to take a sledge hammer and start publicly smashing shopping carts used by these unfortunates. If a homeless person had the temerity to try and get a few hours sleep, the mighty Tom Bower would rudely awaken them and order them to get their lazy asses moving, by God!

Criminalization of poverty and homelessness can create a downward spiral. By burdening someone with a criminal record, it becomes more difficult for that person to find employment, which makes it increasingly unlikely s/he will find shelter, leading to more violations, and so it goes.  It’s a disgrace, but one state is bucking this trend.

The state of Utah (not generally known for liberal politics) has taken a very Progressive step in dealing with the problem of homelessness. About a decade ago, the Beehive State started giving apartments to homeless people through the “Home First”  program. There is no catch, no hidden strings and virtually no cost to program participants. They don’t even have to take a drug test – and a criminal record is not a barrier. In addition, each participant is assigned a caseworker who provides assistance in finding gainful employment and learning life skills. Regardless of whether or not they succeed in this part of the program, however, participants are still guaranteed a roof over their heads, as well as basic food and a cell phone with 250 free minutes per month.

For the State of Utah, it was less about what was ethically and morally right and more about economics. State bean counters came to a realization: it was more expensive to jail the homeless and send them to hospital emergency rooms than it was to simply furnish them with a place to live. Since the program started in 2005, the cost savings to taxpayers have been tremendous. Jail time and emergency health services for the homeless were costing Utah over $16,500 per person each  year.  Today, the state spends approximately $11,000 for every homeless person they provide with basic housing and a caseworker.  By 2014, chronic homelessness had been decreased by 72%.

Utah is not the only place trying to address the issue constructively. Several cities have been trying to come up with solutions. In 2005, an organization called “Downtown Streets Team” was founded in Palo Alto, California. Since the program’s inception, that community has seen crime rates drop by half, as well as a 54% decrease in homelessness. In 2009, the city of Daytona Beach, Florida started its own “Downtown Street Team.” Participants are hired to clean up downtown areas while provided with shelter. During the past six-and-a-half years, over 60% of its participants have gone to full-time employment and permanent housing or a certified transition program. In December 2004, the City of Portland, Oregon and Multnonah County announced a number of programs and initiatives to get people and families off the street and into permanent housing. Between 2005 and 2011, over 10,000 homeless households (families, individuals and women fleeing domestic abuse) found stable living situations.

Such programs recognize that secure shelter is not only a basic right, it is a basic need. This was pointed out by prominent psychologist Abraham Maslow decades ago. Human needs begin with food, water and air. Next on the hierarchy of needs is shelter and safety. Without those basic needs met, it is impossible for a natural person to become a truly productive and contributing member of a community.

We as a society must acknowledge that basic needs such as clean air and water, food and secure shelter are also basic human rights and should not be “market commodities.” When we do, it’s a good bet that – like the City of Palo Alto and the State of Utah – we will see a lot of other problems, such as crime and addiction, take care of themselves.



K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.