Homelessness Is Booming on the West Coast and I'll Give You One Guess Why

Los Angeles. Image: AP
Los Angeles. Image: AP

For the first time since 2010, the number of homeless people in the US increased this year, according to new estimates from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The main driver of this increase? Lack of affordable housing in metropolitan areas, especially those on the West Coast that have become synonymous with the booming tech industry.

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As a whole, homelessness has declined 13 percent across the nation since 2010, and most states have followed this trend since last year’s HUD Continuum of Care data was released. HUD says this year’s increase is being largely driven by cities in California, Oregon, and Washington, where soaring rent costs and stagnant wages have left the poor with few options for shelter.

As the Associated Press reported last month, many without a place to live on the West Coast are “working homeless,” those whose temporary positions do not provide adequate income to match the spiraling housing prices where they live and work, forcing them to sleep in RVs or cars:

The booming economy, fueled by the tech sector, and decades of under-building have led to an historic shortage of affordable housing. It has upended the stereotypical view of people out on the streets as unemployed: They are retail clerks, plumbers, janitors—even teachers—who go to work, sleep where they can and buy gym memberships for a place to shower.

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With housing costs rapidly rising, tent cities have cropped up in cities like Portland and Los Angeles (where homelessness spiked over 25 percent since last year), leading to public health crises. California declared a state of emergency earlier this year after multiple cities suffered an outbreak of hepatitis A. San Diego now cleans its sidewalks with bleach to combat another epidemic, the AP reports.

City governments and non-profits alike are overwhelmed by the tide of long-term homelessness—a figure that grew 12.2 percent since last year. And the wealthy companies that have driven up living costs in these cities have not been quick to offer solutions of their own.

It’s similarly unclear what, if anything, HUD plans to do to address the problems faced by those being forced out of metropolitan areas by stagnant wages, soaring rents, and increasing costs of living. HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who once famously referred to poverty as “a state of mind” said today in an interview with NPR that “we just need to move a little bit away from the concept that only the government can solve this problem by throwing more money at it.”

When city infrastructure is pushed to its limit, that’s precisely what the federal government is supposed to do—reallocate funds to meet a growing need. Unfortunately for the nearly 554,000 homeless people counted by HUD this year, that seems unlikely to happen.

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[HUD, Chicago Tribune]

Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bgmwrites@gmail.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/

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DISCUSSION

I mean, I’m not sure what the long-term solution to this is. Even seemingly well-meaning governments often slap together a couple token “affordable housing” projects that only yield a few properties that end up overwhelmed by demand, but by that point, everyone loses interest after the initial press conference is over.

Do we go “full socialism” and start creating mass, UK-style council housing? But then we can also look to their example and see that this solution brings up a different set of problems, namely issues of generational poverty and social mobility.

Do we stop this trend of concentrating all our employment into a handful of key cities—thus, dramatically spiking the cost of living for everyone—and start encouraging development into other, more economically depressed places—and therefore, use a more capitalist solution to relieve the pressure? But then the mantra for so long has been about the virtues of “urban density”—well, this is one of the side effects.

Or do we start putting in disincentives to make housing less attractive for speculative investing? But then nobody, from economists to homeowners, wants to entertain the thought of housing prices actually decreasing.

I’m not sure anyone in power is genuinely serious about solving this problem, though, which is why these kinds of articles just keep on coming.