What was feared as an attack near the U.S. Capitol on Monday was instead a fire that injured a homeless woman and destroyed her possessions. And the response to it shows how normal it has become for homelessness to exist in one of the richest countries in the world.
The fire locked a housewarming rehearsal at the US Capitol Complex after it "blew up a puff of smoke and raised safety concerns in an already nervous city," the Associated Press reported.
First responders arrived at the fire and reportedly found a woman in need – her property was on fire and she was injured. They quickly put out the fire and after receiving treatment, she declined to be rushed to hospital for further investigation, Vito Maggiolo, a spokesman for the DC Fire and EMS Department, told Vox.
The woman's portable gas tank, which contained flammable gas, had exploded, raising concerns about a possible attack on the Capitol, according to firefighters.
The heightened security response that made a small fire a national story is the result of the recent Capitol storm. Following the January 6 uprising, the Department of Defense approved up to 25,000 National Guard troops to aid inauguration security on Wednesday. Vox's Alex Ward reported, "This is a massive security presence. … President Barack Obama's" surge "additional US troops to Afghanistan in late 2009 consisted of 30,000 soldiers." And that increased security comes on top of the real fortress that is around the Capitol was built.
All of these measures have been taken amid fears of further violent activity by pro-Trump extremists who, as Anna North of Vox reported last week, may have plans to storm state houses and possibly even surround the White House and Capitol before the inauguration Day. These threats have not yet occurred.
A worker installs barbed wire to prepare for the president's inauguration on Wednesday. Tom Williams / Getty Images
A member of the National Guard stands guard behind a security fence near the U.S. Capitol on January 17 in Washington, DC. Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images
But with the fire in DC, relief from a dispersed threat mixes with something worrying: an injured homeless woman lost her shelter, lost her means to stay warm, and now has to find alternative accommodation. She's not alone – an estimated 500,000 Americans are homeless in part because federal, state, and local policies keep them that way.
America's Homelessness During Covid-19
While homelessness is notoriously difficult to measure due to the transitory nature of the population and the different definitions of the term, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that homelessness increased in 2019 and 567,715 people became homeless in at least one night.
These numbers vary significantly across geographical areas. For example: "29 states and the District of Columbia reported decreases … while 21 states reported increases." In California alone, 21,306 people were homeless as of 2018 – a 16.4 percent increase that boosted national statistics significantly.
These numbers are likely to get worse. The pandemic has put significant pressure on the lower end of the rental market as financial losses related to the economic downturn associated with Covid-19 are focused on low-income people who tend to be renters.
That means 30 million Americans are at risk of eviction as they struggle for rent – potentially adding significantly to homelessness. The Biden government has announced that it will extend the current national eviction moratorium (which expires on January 31st) to September 30th. While the administration may do so by order of the executive, there could be a wave of evictions that day. Even if the pandemic is more under control at this point, the economic losses of those on the verge of losing their homes may continue. And even if Biden's extension goes into effect, many could lose their homes – informal evictions often take place among vulnerable populations who are either unaware of or unable to exercise their rights.
As I reported earlier this year, preliminary research shows evictions during the pandemic could result in more deaths and higher transmission rates – both among the homeless and the capitalized population. One study found that nearly 11,000 Covid-19 deaths were due to the lifting of eviction moratoriums, and that number could be undervalued.
Homelessness – and the general housing crisis – are political choices
The US homeless crisis is a subset of a national failure to ensure the country has enough housing for its people. According to Redfin, "The number of active listings (the number of properties for sale at any point during the period) has fallen 33% from 2020 to a new all-time low". That said, even if the demand for new homes increases, there is simply not enough to meet that need.
Limited supply means more competition for available housing, and this competition benefits people with higher and middle incomes. Local zoning regulations, which make it difficult for developers to respond to demand signals and to build enough houses in line with the market, contribute to this deficiency. Some of these zoning regulations even prohibit the construction of single-family homes. For example, in Washington, DC, according to the D.C. Policy Center "75 percent of all taxless in DC and 43 percent of all land that is not owned by the federal government".
That means people looking for maisonettes, condos, apartments, or other smaller units that could meet a limited budget only have 25 percent of the DC available.
And in addition, Zoning regulations Allow small groups of people (including those not representative of the broader population) to block new developments for a number of reasons. The funds required to counter this contradiction and comply with strict regulations can also add to the cost of building homes, forcing developers to only invest time and energy in building luxury units and properties that are guaranteed make a profit.
Typical of this problem was a flyer from Berkeley, California that was posted on Twitter on Monday warning of a new development that "promotes pandemics and poverty."
"A Skidrow Building That Promotes Pandemic and Poverty", no, it turns an empty parking lot into a 4-story walk-in building with 42 rooms and shared apartments above the commercial ground floor on two large transit corridors
But the flyer * has * some new NIMBY bingo starters https://t.co/DFMrV78Bml
– (((Matthew Lewis))) is a fossil fuel propagandist (@mateosfo) on January 18, 2021
What "promotes pandemics and poverty", of course, is not allowing developers to build enough housing to meet demand and price housing in a manner accessible to all. This lack of housing exacerbates the federal government's failure to provide sufficient support to ensure that homeless people – who may never be served by marketable housing – find shelter.
The real estate crisis is not an easy problem. Dealing with rising construction costs, ensuring affordable housing is developed in areas that offer opportunities without increasing residential segregation, and working with local residents to alleviate concerns are all difficult economic and political problems.
But greatly reduce homelessness seems possible – if the federal government is willing to spend the money. Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times said, “Over the past decade the federal government has carried out an extremely successful campaign to reduce homelessness among veterans. The government reported in January that it had reduced the number of homeless veterans by 50 percent – from about 75,000 in 2010 to about 37,000 by the end of 2019. Three states and several dozen cities have housed their entire veteran population. "
This has been achieved Through direct financial aid and the provision of supporting housing, advice and health services were offered in addition to accommodation. The program, called HUD-VASH (HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing), cost $ 40 million in 2019.
While this program is focused on 75,000 instead of 500,000 residents, it could serve as a model for a broader fight against homelessness. Appelbaum writes that even with very liberal estimates, "the country's homeless population could be housed for $ 10 billion a year." But not every homeless person may need direct government assistance. To remove uncertainty about housing, the government needs to ensure that the market is not prevented from providing housing.
A homeless camp in Los Angeles, California in December 2020 Brittany Murray / Getty Images
There is no financial need for the US to drastically reduce housing insecurity and eradicate homelessness. And to continue our current course means normalizing the growing camps in our richest cities, consolidating housing segregation and making it difficult for many to afford housing.
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