Problem is getting better and worse at the same time
■ Chris Smith / Advisory Editor
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series looking at the country’s homeless problem and what communities outside Hemet are doing to address it.
For those who look with disdain at the unwashed homeless hanging around street corners, one has to ask – could that be me someday? Given the trends in California housing costs, the answer is a resounding, “yes.” Thousands of us could lose the roofs over our heads in years to come.
Each night in California, some 134,000 people go to sleep under bridges, on park benches, or in doorways – essentially under the stars – not having a place to call home, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Between 2016 and 2017, the homeless population in California climbed 13.7 percent, and there’s no sign that trend is about to let up.
Not everyone on the streets is on drugs or recently released from prison, two known factors contributing to homelessness. According to studies by the University of California, there is a close correlation between homelessness and housing costs. Housing is expensive in California – very expensive – and incomes for the lower third of the population aren’t keeping pace. Many people today are having to choose between paying rent or buying food. Some have resorted to selling their belongings, others are working seven days a week to keep up with rent payments.
For every 100 extremely low-income households, there are only 22 affordable and available rental homes, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. When it uses the term “affordable,” they mean the rent is at or below 30 percent of the area’s median income. For Hemet area residents, the median household income is $33,932 a year. Thus, rent above $848 a month starts edging into the “unaffordable” zone. For a family of four, finding a place to rent in that range will be difficult. In demographic terms, the state is short more than a million rental units that are affordable and available to those people with “extremely low incomes.”
Recent studies by Harvard University show that some 29 percent of Californians spend more than half their income on rent. Under these circumstances, finding money for food, clothing, transportation, and healthcare becomes a challenge. In select areas, those earning half or less of the median income spend as much as 62 percent of their income on housing. In San Diego, this low-income group spends 69 percent of its income on housing; in Orange County, they spend 78 percent of household income. If one questions why there might be an influx of homeless into Hemet from Los Angeles County, it’s less likely a conspiracy than the fact L.A. has more than a half million people who are spending 90 percent of their income on housing, according to the nonprofit Economic Roundtable. The same holds true for Santa Clara County. Meanwhile, the state legislature in Sacramento – and the federal government – have cut funding for redevelopment by $1.6 billion between 2008 and 2016.
And the solution is…?
Many of us are beginning to focus in on the problem, but what is the solution? A number of cities claim to have had success in dealing with their local homeless populations, and some of them are quite creative. In Honolulu, which has the highest per capita homeless rate in the nation, a state senator (who is also an emergency room doctor) has proposed classifying homelessness as an “illness.” The idea is that doctors can then “prescribe” housing, which would allow physicians to dip into Medicaid and other public assistance funds to subsidize housing.
Other cities are trying straightforward but low-risk ways to help people get back into an apartment. A start-up in Portland called NoAppFee.com is using micro-lending to front the application fees for renters until they can repay them. These fees often are a huge financial barrier to a homeless family trying to transition from homeless to housed. Even those whose rent isn’t being subsidized can use the service.
A more tolerant attitude toward the homeless is also beginning to emerge. Several weeks ago, we published Part 1 of this homeless series looking at a homeless encampment in Minneapolis that we toured where the city was providing portable toilets, lighting, and social services to the camp’s 400 residents. Recently, Oakland took a first step away from criminalizing homelessness by offering city services to people living in homeless encampments. These included basics such as trash pickup and portable bathrooms. According to the city, breaking up the camps just makes it harder for residents to find jobs and places to live.
Los Angeles is reported to have about 40,000 homeless persons roaming its streets and sleeping in public and private crawl spaces every night. (Other large centers for homelessness in the U.S. are New York City, Las Vegas, and Seattle.) Accommodating that many people represents a daunting task for the city. It’s reaction has been largely to criminalize homelessness by making it illegal to sleep in your car. San Francisco no longer allows pitching tents on city streets, a colorful feature of San Diego.
In cities with smaller communities of homeless, the problem is more manageable. Some have tried, with varying degrees of success, instituting a policy known as “housing first.” This means getting people housed while they receive counseling or medical attention. It is instead of first requiring people to be employed or sober before being given a place to sleep. The idea is that, if the city can find a place for a homeless person to sleep, the individual has a much better chance of landing a job and moving on with his or her life.
The ‘boom’ isn’t shared
Seattle is somewhat similar to the southern California area in that economic prosperity, which has resulted in increased housing costs, has also contributed to an increase in homelessness. Seattle is one of the fastest growing American cities, but the booming economy is resulting in a disparity in wealth. The lower income residents are finding housing to be unaffordable and affordable units being displaced. The Great Recession resulted in large cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs, but as the economy recovered, less affordable areas became more desirable and gentrified by up-and-coming tech workers.
As a result of the uptick in homelessness, Seattle four years ago approved a minimum wage of $15 per hour as well as invested $1 million worth of services for the homeless out of its $4.8 billion budget. In a controversial move, the city has provided funds for “transitional encampments.” The mayor has defended opening “tent cities” to curb rising homelessness. It has even supported the design of “The Impossible City,” an eco-friendly movable village for Seattle’s homeless that is being built by the area’s youth and backed by the city’s engineering and architectural firms. The goal is to design tiny homes from recycled and salvaged material. The community is planning a solar power hub, composting toilets, and a communal kitchen. While the jury is still out on the venture, the city continues to struggle with a variety of solutions, none of them meeting its expectations to end homelessness over a 10-year period.
Salt Lake City, on the other hand, has had more impressive results. It has been recognized for reducing chronic homelessness by 72 percent since 2005 and ending it entirely for veterans. Utah has adopted the housing-first approach allowing residents to get out from the burden of finding shelter for the night to focusing their attention on health and material needs. Utah even went ahead and built 2,000 apartment units and essentially moved the homeless into them.
In spite of objections by segments of the populace, the city offered these units to people regardless of their mental health or addition status. All in all, critics are acknowledging the city’s program has been a success.
Seattle also has tried a housing-first approach on a limited scale allowing chronic homeless alcoholics to move into what it calls its 1811 Eastlake Project. Reports are it has made the road to recovery easier for those living there and even saved taxpayers money in emergency and medical services.
The housing-first approach has been tried in Bergen County, New Jersey, with reported success. It recently was declared the first community in the U.S. to end chronic homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one linchpin in the area’s success has been its $11 million facility where homeless residents can stay and receive on-site treatment and housing assistance.
Next: What is housing insecurity?