This post was written by Matt Lemas and originally appeared on RYOT.
In the United States today, thousands of government buildings — roughly 77,000, according to federal estimates — are either entirely empty or underutilized across the country.
Many times, the power is still running due to safety requirements, but no one’s inside.
To make matters worse, taxpayers are footing the bill — and maintenance isn’t cheap. These buildings are costing taxpayers $1.7 billion a year in upkeep, NPR reports, and no one’s even using the space.
In other words, a massive amount of potential housing is going to waste while more than 600,000 people sleep on the streets every night.
If we could really put this many buildings to use, people wouldn’t even have to shack up with more than a few roommates. These shelters could, in theory, be less crowded than your average college dormitory.
Easier Said Than Done
There’s legislation in place to convert abandoned buildings like these into homeless shelters, but it’s rare that action’s ever actually taken.
Why not? For one thing, getting these buildings out of the government’s hands is a total red tape disaster.
First, the properties are offered to federal agencies to see if they want to absorb them. If not, state and city agencies are asked the same thing.
After that, nonprofits get a swing at the empty buildings, and then finally the government assesses whether or not the property could be used as a homeless shelter.
And not surprisingly, these buildings aren’t always in the best of shape. Many of the older ones are contaminated with asbestos, lead paint and other toxins, and would require costly clean-ups before they can be cleared for use as a shelter.
NPR reports that these measures are such a pain that the federal agencies who originally own the buildings “just lock the doors and say forget it.”
Thankfully, it seems the federal government is at least aware of how screwed up their real estate situation is.
A panel that includes the Office of Management and Budget, along with other agencies, is currently trying to address the problem. First, they plan to create an accurate list of these properties so government agencies aren’t leasing out or building new buildings when already-owned empty ones could be used instead (currently, there’s no real inventory of these properties).
It’s clear, however, that more action will be needed to properly utilize all this wasted space.
When Real Action Brings Real Results
Converting empty buildings and lots into homeless housing has been done before.
According to Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization for homeless advocacy, dozens of cities in the United States have reconstructed abandoned housing into usable housing.
In San Francisco, for example, the city passed the Surplus Property Ordinance in 2004, which gave the Mayor’s Office for Housing the jurisdiction of vacant lots so they could be developed into shelters for homeless people.
Additionally, in Seattle, a homeless grassroots group called Operation Homestead re-opened abandoned apartment buildings and turned them into affordable housing for formerly homeless people.
Turning Legislation Into Action
We’re not being foolishly optimistic — it’s evident that it’s no easy feat to turn these abandoned buildings into homeless housing. From red tape to proper funding to even the damage it could do to local property values, multiple hurdles lie in the way of turning these properties into real shelters.
But current data tells us this: giving homeless people housing and supportive services is way, way cheaper than just letting them live on the streets (incarceration and emergency medical treatment adds up).
So we pose this question to you — do you think these buildings should be converted into homeless shelters? Should federal agencies fight through the red tape, or should we turn first to other, simpler solutions?
Photo Credit: Thinkstock