Rep. Maxine Waters: Being Hungry And Homeless Shouldn’t Be A Death Sentence

People attend a rally to protest the death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was choked to death on the subway, on May 5, 2023, in Washington Square Park, New York City, New York.
People attend a rally to protest the death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was choked to death on the subway, on May 5, 2023, in Washington Square Park, New York City, New York.

People attend a rally to protest the death of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was choked to death on the subway, on May 5, 2023, in Washington Square Park, New York City, New York.

On May 1, Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old Black man, who was experiencing homelessness and struggling with his mental health, boarded the New York City subway. While on the train, Jordan expressed that he had nothing to eat, nothing to drink and was so exhausted that he was ready to go to jail. Instead of being offered compassion, he was violently murdered by a vigilante who pinned him down and, for 15 minutes, choked him to death. Others aided and abetted the murder by helping to hold him down. 

His offense: Being hungry and homeless. 

Unfortunately, the distress that Jordan experienced is the story of over half a million Americans across the country facing homelessness. The dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness, like Jordan, can portray them as disposable and unworthy of human decency.  

The truth is people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than the criminals they are inaccurately painted to be. Take, for instance, my home state of California, where a former San Francisco city official was arrested for allegedly attacking a 24-year-old person experiencing homelessness with bear spray. What’s more, a man who fits the former official’s description is suspected of targeting people experiencing homelessness in at least eight other incidents since November 2021.

We’ve also heard tragic stories of people experiencing homelessness being set on fire and violently stabbed while sleeping in their tents and on park benches. There are also egregious trends referred to as “bum hunting,” where perpetrators have a simple goal: To terrorize and kill people experiencing homelessness who are also more likely to be people of color. In South Carolina, where homelessness is on the rise, individuals have been charged with attempted murder in planned and filmed attacks against people experiencing homelessness. In Los Angeles in 2021, 24% of the city’s murder victims were homeless. Indeed, this brutality is getting worse, with the homicides of people experiencing homelessness increasing nationwide by more than 854% between 2010 and 2021 and often with impunity.

No one in America should be homeless, and it certainly should not be a death sentence should a person become homeless. 

We’ve seen homeless shelters, service providers, churches, and other faith- and community-based organizations on the frontlines advancing efforts to support people experiencing homelessness by working to provide clothing, access to food and medical care, employment training and other wrap-around services. This work is critical, but we must do more to support and expand it. 

As the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and a policymaker who has fought tirelessly for years to combat our nation’s affordable housing crisis, I can tell you that the only thing that will truly end someone’s homelessness is a house. It really is that simple. During the pandemic, the investments I secured in the American Rescue Plan Act were used to house over 140,000 people who had been living on the streets. As the richest country in the world, we have the resources to ensure everyone has a safe and stable home, but far too often, we lack the will to do so.

In cities and states everywhere, communities spend far more taxpayer dollars on displacing and criminalizing people experiencing homelessness than it would cost to house them and ensure they have the resources they need to thrive. In fact, research shows that it costs our nation’s taxpayers a whopping $31,000 per year to criminalize someone suffering from homelessness. On the other hand, the cost of providing them with supportive housing is less than a third of that cost — only $10,000. 

We must abandon inhumane and expensive approaches to homelessness that only worsen the problem and rob us of hope for a brighter future. People need homes, not handcuffs; outpatient mental health services, not forced institutionalization; and compassion, not murder. To advance President Joe Biden’s federal strategy to address the nation’s mental health crisis, Congressional Democrats provided $300 million to expand community-based mental health services and established the first-ever ‘988’ Suicide and Crisis Lifeline to provide 24/7 support to anyone in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress. But we must do more.

President Biden’s long-stalled Build Back Better Act was a step in the right direction. It included legislation I authored that would have provided $150 billion to create nearly 1.4 million affordable housing units, putting us on the road to finally ending homelessness in America. We have an obligation to ensure that everyone, including men and women like Jordan, can grow old, have a roof over their heads, and be treated with respect.