Opinion: Why is homelessness not up for debate between Murphy and Ciattarelli?

‘I was dismayed to see that in New Jersey’s first governor’s debate, the words homeless or homelessness were not uttered once’
Saladin Ambar

Last week, when walking from my hotel in downtown Seattle to get some air, I was struck by the cacophony of noise emanating not far from the Target near where I was staying for the annual political science conference I regularly attend. The sound was a mixture of music, yelling, and something akin to revelry, but far more off-putting. Assuming I was happening upon a nightclub scene, I was surprised and dismayed to see a throng of humanity — homeless men and women, milling about, opposite a quiet commercial street. It was the beginning of a melancholic assortment of sights from a great American city: A friend and I both saw people shooting up heroin in broad daylight on different occasions, and we swapped stories of the bleak and inhumane sights we encountered over the weekend in America’s Emerald City.

Because of those experiences, I was dismayed to see that in New Jersey’s first governor’s debate, the words homeless and homelessness were not uttered once. To be sure, the problem of homelessness is more acutely felt in some cities than others — and New Jersey is faring comparatively better than its Washington state cousin where, despite fewer residents, it has more than twice the number of homeless people. Yet, New Jersey’s estimated 10,000 homeless deserve better, and greater attention to the issue ought to be paid by the candidates, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, and his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli.

Newark’s Mayor, Ras Baraka, has recently shed more light on this trying, but not insurmountable, public policy challenge. Baraka has partnered with the House America plan, led by Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, to help draw in the nation’s mayors, governors and tribal leaders to use funds appropriated from the American Rescue Plan to address the crisis of homelessness. At a recent event with Fudge, Baraka said, “Everyone should have a safe, stable home, and I’m grateful for President Biden’s American Rescue Plan resources to help house people experiencing homelessness here in our city, state, and across the country.”

A sense of capitulation

Of course, we’ve seen such policy prescriptions fail before, but perhaps the biggest lesson concerning the plight of homeless people in America is that apathy surrounding the issue feeds on a sense of helplessness. Part of the job of elected officials — and those in the private sector who care — is to shine a spotlight on the problem and offer solutions. Failing to talk about it is to affirm a sense of capitulation among voters, politicians, advocacy organizations and, finally, the homeless themselves.

Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign website offers a vague pledge about his position: “For over forty years, New Jersey leadership from both parties has failed our major cities, which continue to be plagued by deep-seated economic injustices, lack of educational opportunities, potentially dangerous health threats and ineffective redevelopment efforts.” It’s clear that Ciattarelli believes the private sector ought to lead in this effort, with the free market providing the impetus to “redevelop” New Jersey’s cities.

Murphy’s campaign website hardly gets into the specifics of how to address homelessness in the state either, though the “On the Issues” section does at least lead with the heading of “Affordable Housing.” That’s a start. But he and Ciattarelli owe it to New Jersey voters and those without a voice in the state’s politics — the homeless population — to offer greater specificity and indeed advocacy on their behalf than they’ve been getting.

Great nations die city by city, with the “vulnerable” becoming an ever-expanding segment of the population. Silence on the question of homelessness in debates, or anywhere else on the campaign trail, ought to come to a swift end. Perhaps that moment will come during the final debate between the candidates, scheduled for Oct. 12 at Rowan University.

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