Because Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act empowered people, it freed people from the burden of poverty. It freed them to control their own destinies, to create their own opportunities, and to live the vision of the American dream.
–George H.W. Bush, November 28, 1990
Between the years of 1862 and 1986, the United States gave away – to women, immigrants, blacks, and whites – more than 270 million acres of public land, or nearly 10% of the total area of the United States. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. Government could apply, improve the land, and after 5 years of living on their square-mile (160 acre) plot, be eligible to claim ownership through a series of Homestead Acts. During that 124-year period, 1.6 million “homesteaders” were made property owners by the U.S. government. What qualified these individuals to be given such a substantial real estate hand up was the understanding that, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the purpose of government is “to elevate the condition of men…to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
Homesteading wasn’t the only U.S. government initiative to view housing and helping citizens as a necessary public good. The “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944” helped millions of families purchase homes by providing veterans with low interest, zero down payment, home loans with favorable terms for new construction in the suburbs. Like the Homestead Act, the G.I. bill acknowledged that property ownership contributes to community prosperity. Both laws also had a long-term legacy; the G.I. bill is still in place today—albeit revised—including protections and support for veterans’ education and work benefits. The law opened doors to upward mobility for millions of veterans, an effort seen as both a reward for service and a way to invest in the nation’s economic future.
This year in Colorado, the legislature passed a series of bills that will open doors and allow greater mobility to those in need, and simultaneously invest in the state’s economic future. Among them is an amendment to the state budget to provide fifteen-million dollars’ worth of supportive housing investments, and Senate Bill 17-021, which will provide supportive housing vouchers to individuals exiting the criminal justice system. Secured funding to provide this housing is the result of years of effort by stakeholders across the state who know that doing nothing to address the needs of chronically homeless, justice-involved individuals with behavioral health disorders is far more costly and ineffective to all of our systems than simply getting some ground under their feet, a roof over their heads, and housing them, first.
For over a century, U.S. presidents have heralded property-based supportive programs like the Homestead Acts and the G.I. bills as expressions of our self-sufficient American values. The figure of the “homesteader” that occupies the American psyche as the archetype of rugged individualism, was really a beneficiary of an early government property-distribution model.
In sad contrast, the war heroes, the returning veterans who sacrificed and who we say deserve our reverence, made up 8.6% of our nation’s homeless population in 2014.
Colorado’s 2017 supportive housing legislation is a necessary course correction and a good step in the right direction. Efforts to invest in supportive housing in Utah, New Jersey, New York, and Los Angeles are also praiseworthy. Ours is a nation proudly built by homesteaders and veterans who were supported by wise and generous public policy. When we give people the means to help themselves, when we recognize that without housing there can be no foundation for a productive life, we can start to recover the value of so much human capital lost to systemic neglect, cycles of poverty, and ensnarement in the criminal justice system.