Over eighteen months ago, TrueActivist.com reported there were 18,600,000 vacant homes in the United States – enough for every homeless person in the country to have six. A similar report appeared on Huffington Post  in August 2010, and was the subject of discussion on a forum at Snopes.com two years later.

It is now July 2015. What has changed? Very little. The ratio of empty homes to homeless people is still approximately six to one – and that doesn’t account for empty, unused government buildings that could be converted into housing.

A large part of this situation can be placed squarely on the banking industry and the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Between 2007 and 2011, banking institutions foreclosed on eight million homes. While the rate of foreclosures started to decrease in 2012, the crisis was far from over. The other part of the equation is the number of Americans who have fallen into poverty because of medical bills, accidents, job losses, divorce and deaths in the family. And of course, while the cost of everything – including housing – continues to climb, wages and salaries for 98% of Americans remain stagnant.

It’s an intolerable situation for those who cannot afford a roof over their heads – but ironically, it’s not good for the banks, either. Those 18 million empty homes actually represent liabilities, not assets. With no one living in them, the banks, as owners, must pay property taxes. Empty houses in a neighborhood drive down overall property values, particularly when they aren’t being maintained. It’s a losing proposition for everyone.  Incidentally, the situation is similar in Europe. According to a report published by the UK Guardian last year, there were 11 million vacant homes across the EU – and 4 million homeless people.

It’s readily apparent that neither homeless people nor financial institutions are benefiting from this sad state of affairs. So, why is nothing being done?

The good news is that some things are being done at the local level, at least. In 2004, San Francisco passed a law giving the mayor authority to oversee the development of homeless shelters on vacant lots.  Two years earlier, the city of Seattle established a program to reopen abandoned rental units and convert them into low-cost housing for the homeless. Recently, the state of Utah, finding that it was cheaper to provide homes for the homeless than arresting or dumping them, started doing just that through its “Home First” program.

These programs represent a start – but at this point, it is tantamount to holding back the ocean with a finger in the dike.

At the same time that some progressive local and state governments are trying to appropriately address the problem of homelessness, other governments continue to treat the homeless as criminals – and they have no problem spending millions of dollars in the process.

Food, water and shelter are basic human rights. Empty homes aren’t doing the banksters a damned bit of good – but they could do some good for all of us. It’s time for the moralistic capitalists to get off their high horses and acknowledge this fundamental truth.

 

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.