On the cold Christmas morning of 2017, Benjamin Harvey was found dead in the city of Boulder north of Denver—one of the wealthiest cities in Colorado and a bastion of “progressive liberalism.” Described by those who knew him as “sharp, compassionate, and conscientious,” Benji loved his family and loved to cook. And like 16,000 other people in Colorado, he was homeless.
Several weeks before Christmas, he had arrived just a bit too late to receive an important piece of mail at the Boulder Homeless shelter and responded with a violent, though harmless, outburst. Because of the “coordinated entry system” that Boulder housing assistance uses, this one false step left Benji out in the cold.
2017 was a deadly year for the Denver homeless population. 231 homeless people have died in the past year, 60 more than in 2016. Over 1,117 have died while homeless in the Denver metro area since 2008. Thousands of others have died in other cities across the country. In the wealthiest country in human history, these deaths represent an avoidable tragedy and expose capitalism’s utter inability to provide basics such as housing and safety.
Despite a relative uptick in Denver’s economy since the 2008 recession, rising home prices, inadequate mental health services, and cuts to social spending have all contributed to the city’s homelessness problem. Denver has been among the country’s fastest-growing cities in recent years, and gentrification is currently displacing many of the city’s long-term residents. Rather than making the city a better, more affordable place to live for current residents and workers, profit-driven housing development in the Denver area is targeted at “the right kinds” of young professionals and tech workers. This process prices out families that have lived in the city for generations and sweeps the growing issue of homelessness under the rug. 5,116 people were counted as homeless in the Denver metro area in a one-day survey last year, many with jobs, families, and children.
The city’s mostly Democratic administration has played a key role in exacerbating this crisis with a barrage of anti-homeless legislation in recent years. In 2012, the City Council passed a “camping ban”—denying the homeless the right to survive autonomously by banning the setting up of tents, eating, sleeping, and even storing possessions on public or private property. This has resulted in nearly constant harassment by the Denver Police, and police have been recorded taking away people’s blankets in winter. Rather than actually reducing homelessness, this has pushed people into camping in dangerous, marginal areas or into cramped shelters while only reducing the visibility of the problem.
The rise of the opioid crisis in the US is a particularly insidious symptom of capitalism’s decay. Drug overdoses were the largest cause of death recorded among Denver’s homeless last year, with 81% of those deaths listed as opioid-related. Between 2002 and 2015 the number of deaths from opioid overdoses has quadrupled, with 150 Americans dying every day. For many workers experiencing pain related to an injury or simply the long-term effects of physical exertion over many years of work, opioids are a short-term expedient to a systemic problem. Often prescribed by doctors who are explicitly or implicitly encouraged to prescribe opioids like oxycodone, patients can become addicted and develop a dependency. More prescriptions also means higher expenses, leading many to seek pain relief from cheaper alternatives like heroin or the notoriously strong and dangerous fentanyl.
Homelessness and poverty, in particular, can multiply the destructive effects of addiction by denying access to needed care and resources for recovery. Whatever the situation may be, capitalism shows itself ready to either exploit the vulnerabilities it has created for profit or discard those it no longer sees as exploitable.
In the case of Benjamin Harvey, it is not merely an incident of “falling through the cracks,” as many liberals will claim. Once Boulder’s homeless are disqualified from housing services, they have few options. Because Boulder also has a “camping ban,” many homeless folks sleep on the margins, away from populated areas. Benji had been ticketed for “camping” in the past and had paid his fine by volunteering as a cook at Boulder Meals on Wheels.
In the US alone there are more than five times as many vacant homes as homeless people. In California, the state with the most homeless people, there are 1.1 million vacant homes, and 116,000 homeless people—more than nine homes sitting vacant for every homeless individual.
To eliminate homelessness throughout the US would be a simple administrative affair that could be completed in a matter of weeks by a workers’ state. The “invisible hand” of the market is completely disinterested in those at the bottom of society. The “safety net” for those discarded by capitalism is full of holes. We should instead rebuild our society, not out of nets, but on a rational basis, with a democratic plan of production that ensures quality jobs, housing, healthcare, drug treatment, and other necessities for everyone.