Housing Is a Human Right | Opinion

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Shahid Buttar during a Newsweek podcast debate on homelessness. You can listen to the podcast here:

I appreciate Jason's recognition of all the different intersections. And I would just note that we do absolutely have to agree on why people end up homeless in the first place. Across the various situations that drive people into being unhoused, the one common element is that we treat housing in the United States like a commodity. It's an object of speculation, which is to say the cost has been driven out of the reach, increasingly, of entirely too many Americans.

It was noted in the [podcast's] intro that over half a million Americans sleep without shelter every night, including tens of thousands of children. And it is unconscionable—period, full stop. I hear Jason's attempt to thoughtfully separate people's situations and I would just note, having encountered housing insecurity myself, the complete arbitrariness of access to housing. It is, in fact, an irrefutable fact: We have more than enough housing in this country for everyone to have shelter, but we don't allocate housing in any way according to need.

Rectangles are painted on the ground to
Rectangles are painted on the ground to encourage homeless people to keep social distancing at a city-sanctioned homeless encampment across from City Hall in San Francisco, California, on May 22, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

If you took all of the Airbnbs, for instance, or the vacation rentals that are available for short-term rentals and they were available to people to live in—and if we treated housing as a human right, and the public social good that it is—and as long as we're talking about intersections, I think we do a disservice to the issue without recognizing that one of the leading causes of homelessness is medical bankruptcy. It's not only the case that we refuse, as a country, to allow housing as a human right—and as a result, half a million Americans don't have shelter. We also deny other basic human rights and because people have to pay out of their pockets for for-profit health care—which is to say not just for their medicine and their care, but also for the fancy cars and vacation homes of pharmaceutical and health insurance executives—that forces people into the street.

Recognizing that everyone gets old, that everybody gets sick, we systematically drive homelessness. We can talk a lot here about the roots and, you know, one place I joined Jason in identifying a common concern is the independent vector of mental illness and the risk that people are placed in through it. And I would just, again, note the devolution of social services that we suffered in the 1980s. There's a historical arc to how we got here. That's important to also consider.

Shahid Buttar is a San Francisco-based activist and former candidate for U.S. Congress.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.