Eminent domain and the homeless problem

The comment below was left on Mayor Hamilton’s official Facebook page, after a homeless man died of exposure in Seminary Square Park. I have seen similar views expressed multiple times.

Nothing “accidental” about someone left outside to freeze to death while there’s six times more unused homes than homeless individuals.

Assuming the statistic cited above is accurate, what is the solution to this? Let’s take this argument to its logical conclusion, to ensure that the “unused” housing space is used to shelter the homeless. Should the city confiscate “unused” homes via eminent domain? Should the city force apartment buildings with unused space to house the homeless? What exactly is the policy being proposed here?

Here is the obvious problem: Many of the homeless are not people who are down on their luck and fell behind. They are mentally ill and/or drug addicts and alcoholics. According to the Herald-Times, “Parks maintenance staff have picked up 1,796 needles in the park and collected 675 that had been properly discarded in the sharps container.” There are obviously dangers to the property owners and other tenants, so putting these folks into a multifamily unit brings serious liability issues. This is not theoretical. A man “whose address was not available” left a 73 year old man with a broken ankle:

The victim told police a man who was screaming incoherently and pounding on the hood of a parked car came over and started punching him. He said the man knocked him to the ground, then kicked him and put his foot on his neck, restricting his ability to breathe.

Source: The Herald-Times.

Do we really want to force property owners to house drug addicts and potentially dangerous mentally ill people? Given how the people in the Seminary Square Park shantytown have kept up the park, do you really think they will keep up the houses and/or apartments given to them? Will the city compensate property owners for the damage that will inevitably be done to their property?

More importantly, what about the safety and basic human rights of other tenants in multifamily units? Will the landlords be allowed to evict dangerous or violent tenants from their property? Will they be shielded from liability for housing drug addicts and mentally ill people when they inevitably commit crimes, especially since the property owners did not have a choice in the matter? Will the city be liable for those crimes?

Homelessness is a problem, and no one wants to see people suffer. But a “housing first” orientation that harps on the fact that there is “unused housing” ignores the reality of the situation and tries to force the problem on someone else while ignoring the potential damage of such a “solution.” The problem is not necessarily a lack of housing, but drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. Those root problems cannot be addressed by a “housing first” approach, especially when that approach ignores (or worse, intentionally compromises) the safety of law-abiding citizens of Bloomington.