Could We House the Homeless in America’s 77,000 Empty Government Buildings?

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


Christine Jones
Christine J2 years ago

Sounds like a complex and difficult task but the first step is to talk about it. With political will the problem can be solved.

feather w.
Feather W3 years ago

no money for things like this for 57% of the budget goes to the military for new jets and bombs.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

Yes, by all means open these empty buildings to the homeless - right now!!!
The cooler months are starting and winter is just around the corner!

Robert McGonigal
Robert McGonigal3 years ago

... I Have Not Finished Reading All, But I Will.. I Am Confused About A Few Of The Comments.. Yeah, I Am In Canada, And I Do Know Of Seaton House.. (MEN ONLY!) .. It Is Working, But Conditions Deteriorate, And Repairs Are Slow, But Governments Have To Be Asked First, And RED Tape Always Gets In The Way, As For Buildings Or Houses, There Is Always The BANKS, Landowners, Wanting $$$$$ And Holding Out.. Real Creeps .. TightWads!! All They Care About Is The Almighty Dollar.. And It's A Sin, When You Think Of It.. Always The Damn Quota .. ((I Wonder How Much I Can Make Today Kinda Thoughts RUN RAMPANT!)) .. Just Let Go, Or Loosen The Red Tape.. Stop Being So Greedy, Lower Rents, Allow Repairs To Be Done, Send In Inspectors To Make Sure It's Done In A Safe Way.. Thanks For All Your LIKES.. STARS .. Etc.. :D ..Namaste!

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago

ty. thanks for the many thought-provoking comments

Mary B.
Mary B3 years ago

Yes, this should be done as soon as possible! Always go for the simple solution first because that starts the process. Get the people inside! Think about the major clean up and renovation later, that is not as important as giveing relief from the elements. They can then participate in the initial clean up. Get donation of used cots, bedding furnature, cleaning supplies and cleaning tools.You'll need volunteers and paid help to organize the job, but give the homeless ones a safe place to sleep, access to water for bathing, food on a regular basis and start dealing with their medical issues. CUT THE RED TAPE and just DO it.

john hall
john hall3 years ago

Yah we probably could help poor americans but why the hell would obama and the dumbasscrats want that...can you say were housing and giving food to illegals that are here and coming over the border illegally by the thousands that's is against the law...but again why help americans when the left can reach out to illegals and help them.

Thomas Fischer
Thomas Fischer3 years ago

Our government is concerned about other countries human rights violations but can't address our own. We need to end homelessness in America now!

Charlie Rush
Charlene Rush3 years ago

One thing I forgot to mention comes from the philosopher, Voltaire:

'The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor'.

Charlie Rush
Charlene Rush3 years ago

We could never do something like that.
It makes tooooooo much sense.

We must never forget that a vast majority of the homeless are mentally ill, and should be taken care of, with housing and food and,
What kind of country are we becoming?
No other industrialized country will look to us to set a good example.