Pluralistic: Why are so many Californians homeless? (12 July 2023)

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A homeless person's tent under a freeway underpass. From it emerges the bear from the California state flag.

Why are so many Californians homeless? (permalink)

12% of Americans live in California – but 30% of homeless Americans, and 50% of unsheltered Americans, call California "home." This is the source of endless schadenfreude from "red state" partisans, and is often waved as proof of the failure of liberal policies. But the real story is both more complicated – and simpler.

UCSF's Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative's "California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness" is the largest, best study of homelessness in California in some 30 years:

Between Oct 2021 and Nov 2022, researchers surveyed a representative sample of 3,198 people, and conducted in-depth interviews with 365 more. They concluded that, contrary to popular folk-stories about "homeless migration" by out-of-staters seeking an easy life on California's streets, "people experiencing homelessness in California are Californian." Nine tenths of respondents were already living in California when they lost their housing.

It's also not true that homeless people move to LA or San Francisco from out of town: three quarters of participants live in the same county they were living in when they lost their homes.

So California's unsheltered and homeless people are Californians. They're our neighbors. They are disproportionately racialized – 26% are Black, 12% are First Nations, and 35% are Latino. They are older: their median age is 47. They've been homeless for a long, long time: the median duration of homelessness is 22 months, and 36% of respondents were "chronically homeless."

They are survivors of violence: 72% of them have experienced violent assaults in their lives; 24% have experienced sexual violence (that number goes up to 43% for cis women, and 74% for trans and nonbinary people).

They're sick. 60% have a chronic illness. More than a third have some health condition that limits their daily living. 22% have a mobility limitation.

They're also pregnant. A quarter of the participants who were assigned female at birth had been pregnant during their current episode of homelessness.

66% are experiencing mental illness. 48% have serious depression, 51% have anxiety, 37% have trouble concentrating, and 12% experience hallucinations.

Only 9% have received any mental health counseling.

They take drugs – but at fairly low levels. 31% take meth regularly. 11% take opioids. 16% binge drink.

They are in trouble with the law and also at risk of being victims of criminal violence. A third have been to jail at least once during their current homeless episode. 38% have been assaulted while homeless (10% of homeless people surveyed experienced sexual violence).

So how did they end up homeless? It's depressingly easy.

It starts with getting evicted. For leaseholders in the survey, the median amount of notice they had that they would lose their homes is ten days. For non-leaseholders, the median amount of notice was less than one day.

Homeless people are poor before they become homeless. Many people's last home was a "non-leaseholder" arrangement – they were people who lost their rented homes and moved in with family or friends. For these people, the median wage in the six months before they lost their homes was $950/month. While 43% of non-leaseholders weren't paying any rent, the remainder were paying a median rent of $450/month. Non-leaseholders have no legal rights, and often lived in "substandard and overcrowded conditions."

For leaseholders, the median monthly income before losing their homes was $1400/month – but their median rent was $700/month.

When a leaseholder loses their home, the cause is usually economic – they can't afford the rent. When a non-leaseholder loses their home, the cause is usually social – a conflict within the home or "not wanting to impose."

People about to lose their homes turn to family and friends for help, but not for-profit or government agencies devoted to helping people in their situation. 70% of survey respondents believed they could have avoided homeless with a one-time cash payment of $5,000-$10,000. 90% say a Housing Choice Voucher would have kept them from becoming homeless.

20% of people who become homeless say it was because they lost some or all of their income – often because their car broke down or got towed and they could no longer get to work. Once homeless, most survey respondents seek work – but are unable to find it, due to age, lack of transportation, disability and lack of housing.

What can we do about this? 90% of respondents say the biggest barrier to finding a home is housing costs. Half say their bad credit makes it even harder to find a rental, while a third say their criminal records also get in the way. Half also say that all the affordable housing is unsafe, or too far from their communities or care providers.

The authors have a suite of policy recommendations. For starters, we can increase homelessness prevention by giving financial support and legal aid to people facing eviction. These can be offered at "service settings" like domestic violence services, and at "institutional exits" from jail and prison. We can also make it harder to evict people.

We can expand "low barrier" access to mental heath and addiction care. We can offer training and transportation support to people in precarious economic situations, as well as help in navigating the process to get benefits.

We can offer more services to people in unsheltered settings, and embrace a racial equity approach that recognizes the racialized nature of homelessness.

And finally: we can increase the availability of housing vouchers, and the stock of affordable housing.

This last one is long overdue. America treats housing as an asset rather than a human right, creating a world of haves and have-nots. The haves are dedicated to increasing the value of their assets by restricting the supply, and by reducing the protections offered to tenants (the more a landlord can extract from tenants, the more all houses are worth, because every time one goes up for sale the bidding includes landlords who are factoring in their ability to milk flush tenants and evict broke ones):

In California, the meager supply of low-income housing has been gobbled up by Airbnb, and also by unscrupulous landlords who illegally convert their low-income housing into boutique hotels, with no fear of punishment from toothless, gutless enforcers:

(Image: Wonderlane, CC BY 2.0, modified)

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