While the overall economy is strong, there has been an increase in the number of homeless Americans. One of the growing segments consists of people who live in their cars and many of them work. They are generally homeless not by choice, but because they cannot afford housing near enough to where they work.
Since people in such straits generally lack political power and are often regarded as presenting a threat or creating an eyesore, it is not surprising that many municipalities tried to “solve” this problem by passing laws aimed at cracking down on people living in their cars. As would be expected, these laws were not effective in solving the problem. Churches, charity groups and some communities have attempted to address the problem in a more positive way by establishing safe parking areas for the homeless. In some cases, there is access to showers and bathrooms. This situation raises various moral concerns about what, if anything, should be done to help the homeless. This is, obviously enough, yet another specific version of the broader moral question of what we owe other people.
One approach, as noted above, is to try to solve the problem by passing laws banning people from sleeping in their vehicles in public areas. This gives people the choice between running afoul of law enforcement or leaving the area. If these laws are widespread, then leaving becomes problematic—there would be few places to go. Also, the working homeless are often tied to their jobs and moving would thus problematic. If they stay, they can end up losing their car to fines and impounding—which will leave them without shelter or transportation. This solution is also morally problematic since it punishes people for being poor and unable to find affordable housing.
It could be objected that these people could easily drive somewhere, find a new job and get affordable housing. However, if it were so easy for them to do this, then surely most of them would have done so already.
Another approach, as mentioned above, is for charity, churches and communities to create safe parking lots for the homeless. While this is certainly preferable to turning the coercive power of the state against the poor and powerless, it does have some problems. One concern is the cost of the lots—they are typically located in pricey areas and hence the resources used to pay for lots there could pay for actual housing elsewhere. Another concern is that the lots used by the homeless are thus not usable by other people, thus reducing available parking. Perhaps the greatest concern is that while the homeless need not fear the police and have some safety, they are still living in their cars in a parking lot—a situation that is certainly stressful, unpleasant and difficult. The fact that they do not have a permanent residence also creates other problems, such as the matter of where the children can attend school. As such, while such safe lots are a step up from parking illegally or “in the wild”, they are hardly ideal and do not address the underlying problems.
Obviously enough, the main reason that the working homeless live in their cars is that they cannot afford housing. This can be seen as their pay being too low to pay for housing or the housing being too expensive for them to afford. As such, the underlying problem is financial in nature. This does allow for two obvious solutions.
The first is to increase wages so that the working homeless can afford at least basic, safe housing. The obvious problem is determining how this should be done. While some employers do provide sufficient wages, it would be a bit foolish to think that they will (or even can) step up to provide a living wage. Another option is to use the coercive power of the state—this time not against the homeless, but to compel employers to pay more. This raises the usual objections about the state interfering with the “free” market.
The second solution is to provide more affordable housing. As with better pay, this could be done by the private sector (landlords voluntarily making less money) or by the state (compelling more affordable housing). As always, this raises the usual objections about the state interfering with the market.
As noted above, one could argue that the working homeless should find better jobs or move someplace with lower housing costs. While this has some appeal, the working homeless driving away would create a problem for the well-off: if the people who clean their houses, make them lattes, teach their kids, put out their fires, police their streets, and so on are forced to move too far away, then the rich will be left without these services. Perhaps this is why Silicon Valley is working so hard on robots. As such, even the rich have a reason to support better pay or affordable housing—or better public transportation to bring in workers from the less-affluent neighborhoods. At least until the robots arrive. However, expecting rational self-interest or moral concerns about the well-being of others to solve the problem from within the private sector is most likely unreasonable. Also, solving social problems is not really the job of the private sector—dealing with social issues is one reason we form governments. So, if the problem is to be addressed effectively, then the power of the state would be needed.
As noted above, using the coercive power of the state against the homeless is not an effective solution and is certainly not ethical. As such, the state should use our resources to address pay or housing costs. As noted above, many would object to the state interfering in the market (except, obviously, when the state’s interference is to their advantage) by compelling change in wages or the cost of housing. However, the Lockean view of the state is that it exists for the good of the people—so using its power to slightly reduce the wealth of the wealthy so that the less well off do not have to live out of their cars would seem morally justified. At least for those who subscribe to the Lockean view. But, not everyone subscribes to this view of the purpose of the state and even Lockeans might see this as unjustified.
Another option that does not involve wages or compelling affordable housing is for the state (and perhaps some in the private sector) to invest in affordable, reliable and fast public transportation that would allow workers to live where housing is affordable and commute (as many now do) into the upper-class zones to work. This approach would have the effect of enhancing the already established and growing division between the classes in America: the rich will dwell within their enclaves, while those who teach their children, make their lattes, clean their houses, fight their fires, and police their streets will be transported in to do their work, then shipped out when they are done. But at least they won’t be living in their cars.