Sleeping arrangements for a homeless man under I-84-East in Hartford. CtMirror file photo

On an average night in 2020, about 2,900 people were homeless in Connecticut. Children make up 20% of that number —  that’s 577 homeless children. Homelessness is a societal ill that targets specific groups and leads to vicious cycles, dragging individuals and families further and further down into poverty. 

The first duty of the state is to protect the “life” of its citizens, and we fall short on this obligation when we leave a significant proportion of our people on the street, lacking food and shelter. 

Ted Shepherd

Putting this aside, though, it does not take much empathy to imagine yourself falling on hard times, missing one too many mortgage payments, and ending up on the street. Those people living in squalor could be any of us. As it is said in Proverbs: “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” 

It would be one thing if homelessness were an inevitability, and all we could do was lament and pray. But we have the capacity to house all of these people, giving them basic human dignity and the opportunity to become contributing members of society.

It would also be reasonable to oppose subsidized housing if doing so would be a big financial burden, but in fact providing housing to all those in need would save the state money. Homeless people are highly likely to be incarcerated and hospitalized, both of which cost the state enormous amounts of money.

A recent study on homelessness in Los Angeles found that the average public cost for a homeless person was about $2,900a month, while the average cost to the city for residents in subsidized housing was about $600 a month. It costs the city almost 80 percent less to provide subsidized housing for a person than to leave them on the street. Therefore providing housing for the homeless is actually the fiscally responsible thing to do.

The Connecticut General Assembly is currently considering SB 168: An Act Establishing A Right To Housing. This bill would not instantly provide homes to all those who currently live on our streets, but it does affirm that giving everyone a home is the right thing to do — a good first step towards ending homelessness. S.B. 168 establishes that everyone has a right to “affordable, decent, safe, and stable housing,” orders all state agencies related to housing to act in pursuit of that objective, and creates a commission for the implementation of that right.

There is precedent for declaring this right to housing in South Africa, Scotland, and Finland. All three countries enshrined it in their laws that everybody has a right to a home, and while this didn’t solve their problems overnight, these governments were able to use this as a foundation for future legislation.

While accurate statistics do not exist about South African homelessness, Scotland decreased its homeless population from 0.84% of the overall population in 2003, when it enacted the Right to Housing, to 0.50% of the population in 2021. Finland decreased its homeless population from 0.19% of the overall population when a Right to Housing was established in its 1999 Constitution, to 0.07% of the population in 2021. Our state similarly could use this right as a staging point, building on it through progressive legislation until the 2,900 homeless people in this state can live safely and affordably. 

Allowing the existence of homelessness simply doesn’t make sense. For one, it is immoral to leave the homeless — many of whom are children, veterans, and the mentally ill — on the street when we have the capability to lodge them. Second, it is the government’s duty to protect the lives of its citizens, which includes providing them adequate shelter. And third, providing subsidized housing for the homeless would actually save the state money, while improving our cities and decreasing crime.

Future generations will look back on America’s current homeless crisis and consider it unthinkable that we could leave thousands of our fellow citizens to live on the streets in squalor. We are experiencing a crisis of homelessness, but also a crisis of compassion, and passing this bill will be the first step to demonstrating our humanity.

Ted Shepherd is a student at Yale University.