In my work as a paramedic I have seen how managing the homeless creates incessant overuse of the emergency services. Most of these cases are the “syndrome of homelessness”, i.e. ineligibility for housing and employment because of criminality, substance addiction, and mental illness. Our need to treat the syndrome as an emergency, each and every time it presents itself, is a combination that is both ineffectual, and incredibly expensive.

The previous entries in the series showed the outcome for an individual patient and how distortions in the system suit the powerful incumbents that make the policies. As a remedy, the most politically powerful silos in the country must be challenged. This part of the series shows how challenging the institutions must include reforming housing policy.

Housing construction should be the simplest aspect of homeless policy. We even define Man by our ability to build (“Caveman”). Except that, in the two cities with the worst housing problems, New York and San Francisco, the inability to build housing is rooted in the illegality of building. Housing shortages contribute to homelessness. What contributes to housing shortages are, not coincidentally, the tightest building regulations in the country, along with the greatest political control of housing construction. Rent control exacerbates the problem.

These factors are all inter-related. San Francisco just denied building permits for a unit because of the way its shadows would fall on a public park. Shadow-play aesthetics are now more important than allowing housing stock to come on to the market (I’m no astrophysicist, but don’t shadows change, come and go during the day? Waiting awhile for favorable shadows is beyond the patience of San Franciscans?). This is not a criterion for a grade in an architecture design class. This is applied law that carries the power of denying an American their freedom (legal silo again). It is law based on a judgement of the value of aesthetics, polka-dots versus paisley. My aesthetic sensibility would rather see an ugly building, or a whole jungle of shadows, than a near-frozen human castaway talking to himself, pushing a shopping cart full of debris, but my opinions aren’t law.

Which is ironic, because at one time New York City had the world’s highest population density. How did we solve that problem? We built up. We invented building up. Rather, the market invented building up before the government gained the ability to say no. Can there be a doubt that NYC would not be the world colossus it is now if Dutch farmers gained the political power to say no to the aesthetics of building up? New York gained its world-iconic “skyline” before status-quo notions of aesthetics could stop it.

San Franciscans had their city wiped out by earthquake and fire, and they did not suffer a housing crisis afterwards. Because they built. Would the status quo aesthetics of late nineteenth century San Francisco have sniffed at the new construction and found it worthy? Unlikely. San Franciscans have gotten used to it by now, and modern SF residents can manage the same for the necessary future transformation.

Here are some other housing alternatives we have outlawed through polka-dots over paisley aesthetics:

  • Flop Houses. We once had them all over the city. I only remember one, and it was ugly. Lots of bad shadows (and hobos sleeping on their fire escapes in the summer). I bet they all were ugly.The flop houses were flopped by the city, but the floppies did not de-materialize. Now the floppies flop in the Emergency Department. You could put them all up in the Mandarin Oriental for what that costs.

  • Cage Housing. All over Hong Kong, which is entitled to a housing crisis, cage housing provides the poor with an alternative to homelessness. Think about how a homeless man might find employment if he has no possessions, which means no change of clothes. In cage housing, they are off the street, they can bathe, and can store their few possessions. Ugly? Granted, any day of the week and twice on Sunday, but polka-dot/paisley opinions on aesthetics should not be able to interfere with two people conducting a business that contributes to the betterment of the world where one gets a place to live, and the other a business to sustain himself and his community.

  • Tiny Houses. A Los Angeles musician built dozens of $1200, solar powered “tiny houses” via crowd-funding. He was not made commissioner of homeless affairs in either New York City, or San Francisco. Instead, his tiny houses were seized and destroyed by the city. 1,200 dollars, incidentally, is less than a single call for a paramedic ambulance. One of the characters in the video, “Smokey,” almost certainly cost ten times more in healthcare money, while fighting the infection that killed her, when she was cast from her completely privately-funded, donated home.

Meanwhile, Texas is adding an abundance of housing for its abundance of refugees from cities with punishing paisley/polka dot caprice. That makes it not a mysterious coincidence that all sectors of their economy boom away, since people can afford to both live and work in Texas. Housing evolves not just for the ultra-rich, who can afford whatever housing stock that is on offer, but for everyone.

Realize the degree to which homelessness is irreparable because it is illegal to repair it.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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