Speed Reads


John Oliver wants to redirect your alarmist misperceptions about America's homelessness problem

There are at least 580,000 people in the U.S. experiencing homelessness — probably lots more — and that steadily rising number is expected to grow a lot in the next four years, John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "With this rise in homelessness has come a corresponding rise in the rhetoric around it," and not just from the usual suspects. 

"I know it is easy to criticize Fox News for being alarmist — alarmism is their whole thing," Oliver said, showing a clip from the Texas capital. "But the truth is, even some residents of Austin, famously a blue dot in a red state, have said it's been a struggle to reconcile their feelings about their homeless neighbors." And Austinites are hardly alone.

"The story of homelessness in this country is grounded in a failure of perception compounded by failures of policy," Oliver said. "And like so many things, the modern version of this issue was turbo-charged by Ronald Reagan," who not only cut programs for the poor and slashed housing subsidies but also helped convince lots of people "that homeless isn't related to economic policy" but rather personal failings and choices.

Over the past 13 years, local governments have criminalized everything from loitering to living in cars, "so when you hear fearmongering about rising crime among the homeless, it's worth asking yourself if those crimes were actually crimes — or just someone sat down," Oliver said. The way to solve homelessness is to give people homes, but NIMBYism is a real problem, everywhere.

"If you're wondering why homelessness continues to get worse in this country, one reason is that there are a lot of people — even liberals — who believe that homelessness is a personal failing, poverty can be avoided, and their own good fortune not only makes them better than the unhoused, but more worthy of comfort," Oliver said. "It is basically Reagan's attitude from a Whole Foods crowd."

The big thing Oliver said he wants viewers to remember is that we need "a collective change of perceptions," where we stop believing "the unhoused are a collection of drug-addict criminals who've chosen this life for themselves instead of people suffering the inevitable consequences of gutted social programs and a nationwide divestment from affordable housing." But he seems resigned to the idea you'll mostly just get that "Raining Tacos" song stuck in your head.