Why Are There So Many Unsheltered Homeless People in California?

By Margot Kushel, University of California, San Francisco. Originally published at The Conversation

One-quarter of homeless people in the U.S. live in California, despite Californians making up only 12 percent of the population.

Not only is homelessness more common on the West Coast but it is also more visible, because a higher proportion of homeless people are unsheltered. In the U.S., 24 percent of homeless people sleep outside, in vehicles or somewhere else not meant for human habitation. But that varies greatly from place to place: In California, 68 percent of homeless people areunsheltered, compared to just 5 percent in New York.

Visitors to the West Coast may be shocked to find the tents that line cities from San Diego to Seattle. Like a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath,” the tents are a stark reminder of the suffering of the thousands living outside, homeless.

What’s to blame for such high numbers of unsheltered homeless on the West Coast? The reason isn’t drug use, mental health problems or weather. Rather, it is due to the extreme shortage of affordable housing.

Life Unsheltered

As a physician and researcher who provides medical care for people experiencing homelessness, I have seen firsthand how devastating homelessness is to health.

Being unsheltered is terrifying, humiliating and isolating. People living without shelterlack access to toileting facilities, sinks and showers. They have no way to store or prepare food and no protection from the elements. Hunger is common.

Sleeping in makeshift beds or on the ground, they get little sleep. They must contend with having their possessions stolen. They face frequent forced moves, which disrupt relationships and make it difficult for family, friends or service providers to find them.

People who are unsheltered are at high risk of physical and sexual abuse. If they struggle with substance use disorders, their use of drugs and alcohol occurs in public, leaving them open to arrest. There are no places to refrigerate or store medicines, no place to receive mailed appointment reminders or a visit from a visiting nurse, no place to dress a wound or plug in medical equipment like oxygen. Without access to hygiene facilities, they are at high risk for communicable diseases like hepatitis A.

Unaffordable Housing

Some assume that homelessness is so common on the West Coast because people move here when they become homeless, but data do not support this. Most people experience homelessnessclose to where they lost their housing. My team’s researchin Oakland found that 81 percent of older adults who are homeless became homeless in the Bay Area. Only 10 percent had lost their housing outside of California.

Instead, the high rate of homelessness can be attributed to the lack of affordable housing in these regions. The West Coast suffers from rising costs of rental housing, stagnant incomes for low-wage workers and a decline in federal support for affordable housing. For example, California has gained 900,000 renter households since 2005, but lost US$1.7 billion in state and federal fundingfor affordable housing.

Extremely low-income households – defined as those with income less than 30 percent of the area median income – are at the highest risk of homelessness. Nationally, there are only 35 units available for every 100 extremely low-income households.

In the West, these shortages are more severe: Nevada has 15 units available for every 100 extremely low-income households; California has 21.

In 2017, for the first time in 13 years, Los Angeles opened its wait list for housing choice vouchers. These vouchers allow households to pay 30 percent of their income in rent, with the rest paid by the government. There were 600,000 applicants for just 20,000 spots on the list, highlighting the enormous unmet need.

Who Pays for Homeless Services

Why are people on the West Coast so much more likely to be unsheltered than homeless people in other parts of the country? It reflects differing government priorities.

New York City, where there is a legal right to shelter, spends approximately $17,000 per homeless person per year on homeless services. Massachusetts spends approximately $14,000 per year. Los Angeles, by contrast, spends approximately $5,000.

With enormous numbers of people living outside, West Coast cities are scrambling for solutions. Some cities, like Seattle, have created sanctioned homeless encampments, bringing hygiene facilities and other services. However, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless cautions that this approachis costly and doesn’t provide a solution to homelessness.

Other cities are following San Francisco’s example and creating navigation centers, homeless shelters with added services. Unlike typical shelters, these centers allow people to come in groups, bring pets and belongings and stay all day.

Many areas have passed tax increases to fund new housing and services. These efforts show modest success but continue to struggle against the unfavorable housing conditions that lead people to become homeless in the first place.

So where can we go from here? There are solutions to homelessness, but, in my view, these will not succeed without solving the affordable housing crisis that is the underlying cause of homelessness.

For people who are chronically homeless and have disabling conditions, permanent supportive housing is highly effective. This type of subsidized housing offers supportive services, without the requirement that people be sober or engaged in medical care. Studies showthat expanding permanent supportive housing has reduced the number of people experiencing homelessness in many parts of the country.

The ConversationThe success of permanent supportive housing has been overshadowed by increases in people becoming newly homeless due to the lack of affordable housing.In my view, preventing and ending homelessness will require a commitment to creating housing that is affordable to all.

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  1. Geo

    Thank you for this post. It has bothered me for years that homelessness has been blamed on mental illness or drug use when I’ve known many who have fallen through the cracks due to circumstance (and been close to it myself). It’s why, more often than not, I have a friend staying in my spare room here in LA and nearly as often when I was in NYC.

    It’s often joked about that my place is a boarding home but the reality is that for so many the cost of transitioning to a new place is expensive and having a few months of “free rent” allows these friends to save up enough to get back on their feet. For those without family support they would have few other choices. And, I’ve been there before so I know firsthand the need to have a place – even just a sofa – for a few months after an eviction or job loss to just get my life back on track.

    It’s why I made a film about it: fraymovie.com

    And it is one of the things that keeps me up at night because I know it could happen to me again at any time. One or two bad months and I could be the one seeking a place to land while trying to get back on my feet.

    1. Andrew Dodds

      It’s horrifying.

      Given how rich and productive our societies are, providing the basics of life – shelter, basic food, basic medical care and the like – for everyone should be a trivial task. It never ceases to amaze me to see the logical contortions people will go through to avoid this conclusion.

        1. jrs

          well yes but no, no not really. I mean that argument might kinda fly if talking about healthcare access. But homelessness is a global problem.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        I see this as part and parcel of Empire Collapse (not that I would be all that keen on exceptionalism even if it DID have a conscience).

      2. polecat

        At least when many Russians (I know, the horror !!) were going through their great disconbobulation, much of the population lived in State-owned housing, utilities provided … which helped immensely in weathering, no pun intended, the incongruities of an empire’s collapse. Of course, the establishment of ‘kitchen gardens’ also helped in that regard, when it came to providing one or one’s family where daily sustenance was concerned. That, and an efficient transit system, at least in the major metropolitan areas, which didn’t leave their citizenry stranded … whereas here, in the Land of the Fee and Home of the Naive .. not so much !

      3. Lil’D

        Private vs public goods…
        There are enough sheltered beds for everyone
        Enough food for all to have sufficient nutrition

        Just not “fairly” distributed (my editorial comment)

        My next door neighbor owns three houses. Rotates throughout the seasons. The two he’s not using are empty

        One of my tennis mates buys up crappy homes, renovates and Airbnb s them

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      In the days of Reagan’s California a lot of the homeless I saw on the streets seemed afflicted by mental illness or drug use — or just came back from Viet Nam but left some part of themselves behind. I don’t know the problem today. Many of the cities where I lived had few people living on the edge — anywhere near the downtown areas — and those who accumulated, as they did, had to come from somewhere else.

      For too many, I thank you for your couch to surf and hope few, if any, gave you reason to regret your generosity. Our Obama- and Bush-villes hide on private generosities. At least in the 1930s the government took some responsibility.

  2. cnchal

    What happened in Seattle? Only days after the head tax for the corporate parasites within the city was enacted, it was retracted. Did Bezos come in and have a staring contest with the puny politicians and they wilted under his demonic glare? Wouldn’t roughly thirty seconds of Amazon stawk market winnings pay for a century’s worth of that tax?

    New York “spends” $17,000 per homeless person. Almost enough for a basic income.

    1. Jeff Fisher

      Well, more like a whole bunch of large employers did that, and made a strong show that they could get it repealed by proposition (public vote). But yea.

      Of course the other side of it is that the policy was rolled out in about the most combative and poorly thought through way imaginable. It was downright Trump-like. The city council was backpedaling from the start.

      Political competency matters, and the Seattle City Council appears to lack it.

      1. Jeff Fisher

        Note their previous attempt was a clearly illegal, for two separate reasons, income tax.

        It would have been a fantastically good policy for the city, but they didn’t bother to even attempt to make it legal.

        They do not appear to be good at this.

        1. Jeff Fisher

          Well, actually one of the reasons might possibly have stood up to the supreme court (it could have overturned a strange old precedent), but the other was very unlikely to survive.

        2. 4corners

          Or, it was a sham effort, publically appealing to one constituency with an endgame to accommodate another (the one that matters). Is that too cynical?

          Either way, it’s really bad optics for Amazon and Bezos in particular. They’re looking pretty scroogey right now. If the homeless were more adorable (or canines) there would be an uproar.

          Last, drug use, mental health problems and weather are certainly factors, and the first two probably contribute to the “affordability” of housing. But this is not to excuse a situation that should be a national embarrassment.

          1. neo-realist

            Much of Seattle is zoned for single family housing, so the vast majority of rental housing gets built in a limited amount of space; that ends up not only minimizing the number of rental units that can be built but also driving up the costs of housing from having too many people chasing too few units.

      2. Jeff Fisher

        I mean, consider. Sawant, et al, made it explicitly about attacking Amazon. Amazon employs something like 40,000 people in Seattle. There are only 700,000 people in Seattle. Literally something like 10% of the voting age population of the city works there.

        1. False Solace

          There’s no way all of Amazon’s workers live in Seattle. Given how bad the traffic is a big chunk of the area’s tech workers must commute from nearby towns/suburbs (where housing with good amenities is easier to afford). But everyone who works there uses city services and infrastructure, not that tech employers want to pay for it.

          1. Jeffrey Eric Fisher

            Of course not, but a lot of them do.
            Enough to form a huge voting block that certain council members went out of their way to anger.

            And absolutely I think those people (and me, though I don’t work for Amazon) and/or the company should be paying more.

            But, as we are seeing, this was not a good way to get that done.

            1. pcraig

              Here in the most regressive state in the country (google it) the Seattle city council passed a totally progressive ‘Head’ Tax unanimously 9-0. A month later they failed to stand up to the oligarchs and the tax was repealed 2-7. The 7 who chickened out and didn’t see the oligarchs coming need to be replaced.
              The leader of the Amazon convenience groupie cult could wipe out homelessness in the U.S. and still have tens of billions of worth. The cities that are currently trying to bribe the richest man on earth should take him, his family and all his Seattle assets too. Most Seattleites could give a (family blog). You can have that economically illiterate H. Schultz too.

              1. Joe Renter

                I agree with both the commenters above. I have been living in the Jet City for 35 years. It took me an hour to drive from Ballard to Beacon Hill today. I rather not drive but I am a contractor with tools and equipment needed to bring the bread home.
                Give me Lesser Seattle. Most everyone I know who have been here a while is trying to leave this place.

                1. Stratos

                  “…Give me Lesser Seattle. Most everyone I know who have been here a while is trying to leave this place.”

                  Yes, yes yes!

                  Traffic is horrible. The city streets were laid out by drunks.

                  Rent for a 300sq foot garage converted into a studio apartment close to me is $1800 per month. Once stable blue collar neighborhoods filled with single family homes are now sprouting skinny, ugly condos, townhouses or huge blockbuster apartment warrens.

                  This is not the Seattle I came to love. It is now a place with garish and depressing displays of wealth and poverty. Hostile architecture for the homeless. Greed, cowardice and ineptitude characterize the local politicians. Avarice and bullying by their corporate overlords is on full display everyday.

    2. John

      San Francisco spends about $36,000 per each homeless person. Or maybe not. These are slippery stats. Some money is spent on formerly homeless people keeping them off the streets. It can be hard to figure which part of the budget counts towards helping the homeless. A small number of homeless require lots of spending (frequent ambulance rides) which skews the numbers.

  3. Mickey Hickey

    The mild climate. In North Dakota or Wisconsin the California homeless level would mean hundreds of deaths from hypothermia every winter which would be unconscionable.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      The map suggests (to me) that climate is not the only factor. Note that Idaho, Montana and North Dakota have at least 40% (I can’t tell if the color corresponds to the 40 or 60 percentile) where as the North Eastern states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, etc., have 20% or less. To me, this suggests a political or ideological (or other) component to density. That is, climate would not adequately explain the discrepancy between those North Eastern and North Western states.

      That and the demographic information provided in the article (that most homelessness happens to local population), i.e. not people from cold states seeking a warmer place to be homeless.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        I should have been precise that I was referring to “unsheltered” homeless above.

        i.e. not people from cold states seeking a warmer place to be homeless and without shelter.

    2. ambrit

      Think again. Such a ‘human’ calculus is no longer being used by the elites of America. This really has become a class war, with lots of casualties. Somehow, I see the Northeasts’ more ‘humane’ response to the problem as a hold over from the Halcyon days of the fifties and sixties, when the Northeast lead the nation. Now, that socio-political dominance is splintering. The nuveaus of today are reverting to early Industrial Age Dickensian thinking patterns.
      You will begin to see increased deaths from hypothermia and starvation up north from here on out.

    3. Sid Finster

      You’d be surprised how many homeless one sees in Fargo, North Dakota. Blows my mind.

      I don’t know how many are sheltered or unsheltered, but in any case, only a hardy breed of homeless will survive the winters here.

      You won’t freeze to death in the summer, but the mosquitoes will eat you alive.

    4. curlydan

      I think the California climate is a contributing factor that the author likely dismisses a little too quickly. But she brings up a number of other factors, especially housing, that make California ground zero for unsheltered homeless.

      I grew up in Texas, but even I was shocked that a winter storm in the “Southland” (aka LA) was mist and lows in the upper 30s.

  4. Tom Stone

    A room runs $800 a month in Sonoma County.
    If you have a part time minimum wage job…even two part time jobs, good luck.

    1. ambrit

      Is that with or without individual bathroom?
      Here Down South (Nortenyo Version,) a weekly rental for an older motel room is running $210 USD. Which is roughly $900 USD a month. This figure seems to be a local industry standard.
      Considering the Laws’ strategy of “Roust ’em and move ’em on,” we see everywhere we look, the elites are subscribing to the “out of sight, out of mind” school of social relations. That only works for so long. Eventually, the problem becomes overwhelming. Then I fully expect to see the rise of “Committees of Vigilance.”

      1. oh

        It’s quite true that the elites ignore the plight of the poor, whatever the reason. They worry more about the iphone, iwatch, the latest tv show, what to buy next and so on.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Not just the elites, but those who hope never to share the plights of the poor and through diversion hope the god of retributions passes over.

          We all are building an explosive of social forces that physics can neither measure nor measure the disruptive after affects. We are driving toward a knife’s edge.

  5. No Body

    I am a 50 year So Cal resident. The homeless used to “hide” in the unbuilt space. But So Cal is built out and there is literally no unbuilt space left.

    Local government is majority funded by taxes on building. So the local politicians keep pushing more building. A lot of the recent building has gone into “gentrifying” areas where the affordable housing used to be.

    The (former) affordable housing has been torn down and sold to the highest bidder. There is no more cheap land to build on, so there is literally no where else for these folks to go.

    1. sd

      Many of the SROs in downtown LA that used to $175 month are now ‘Bistro Lofts’ charging $900 month. And then there’s the housing trusts that were given incentives for mixed reuse rehab which after 30 years, are now readjusting to market rate. Many of them are now resetting because they were first created in the 1980s.

      Another piece to this puzzle is the zoning laws for housing. Low cost housing solutions such as dormitories, SRO, etc have been discouraged. And then add in NIMBY….

      True story – delightful elderly friend on permanent disability did not qualify for subsidized housing. Here’s the kicker – because his income was too low.

  6. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thanks for this timely post. Numbers of visibly homeless in Seattle was featured on local television news yesterday evening because of the negative impact this is having on the convention business and tourism.

    The money quote:

    … “Our destination brand and Seattle’s attractiveness (both for visitors and residents) is being tarnished and diminished daily,” Norwalk said.

    … “According to Visit Seattle’s statistics, 39.9 million visitors came to Seattle and King County in 2017. Those visitors spent $7.4 billion in the city and county in the same year, and tourism in Seattle generated an estimated $10.7 billion total economic impact.”


    Think it would be in Amazon’s own interest to assist financially. Seattle is their hometown, too.

    1. ambrit

      The last line assumes some degree of altruism on the part of Amazon, being anthropomorphized for the purposes of discussion. I’ll assert that, absent serious push back from locals, Amazon will be fine with hordes of homeless in Seattle. Seattle is not Amazons’ ‘home town.’ It is just a convenient place to ‘hang its’ hat.’

      1. Chauncey Gardiner

        You might well be right, ambrit. Just thinking in terms of a benchmark provided by some major European cities.

        Besides an appeal to the founder’s personal roots and values, the city is the home of Amazon’s many head office employees. I would offer that the company’s participation in elevating the deteriorating quality of life for many of the the city’s residents could help with attracting and retaining employees, particularly those with the technical skill sets in high demand that the company is seeking longer term. And, yes, I am taking Bezos at his word regarding HQ2. IOW, do you want to become Detroit, or Berlin?…

        As the author Margot Kushel said, what has occurred in Seattle is a recurring pattern in other West Coast metro areas. So perhaps the top flight intellects at major tech companies could give some thought and corporate resources to urban planning and affordable housing. Otherwise, we could see some more serious implications of the statement I saw scrawled on a Portland wall not long ago: “High Tech, Low Life!”, with unforeseeable outcomes.

        1. ambrit

          I would not put a planned from the ground up ‘community’ for some major corporations out of the questions. The amounts of money spent on some of the big city campuses would go a lot farther in more rural settings. Something akin to Brasilia, or more snarkily, Bezosia, set in the lush climes of coastal Oregon is the idea. Since everything else is reverting to the Robber Baron epoch now, why not real company towns too?
          Look to how Disney managed their Florida fiefdom. The concessions from the State of Florida to the Disney Corporation are breathtaking. For instance, no local sales taxes allowed inside the theme park. Also, perpetual permitting for atomic energy power generating stations inside the theme park. Floridians don’t call it the ‘Mouse Kingdom’ as a joke. It really is.
          Bezosia can be the same.

          1. 4corners

            Agreed. Consider gated residential communities, which embody the ability of the wealthy to insulate themselves from the local effects of poverty.

            But to be fair, for individual actors, even large ones, it might be too much to try to ameliorate local conditions themselves. That what makes this botched attempt by the city so tragic.

        2. LC

          Besides an appeal to the founder’s [Jeff Bezos – LC] personal roots and values

          I’m bewildered – and hurt, as a nobody profoundly effected by his US actions and seemingly unlimited power – by this comment (to put it more even more than mildly). How many decades must Jeff Bezos be ‘appealed’ to. How long do his ‘values’ be allowed to be misinterpreted for anything but a megalomaniacal and deadly valuing of power above all, including the galaxies which surround the earth.

          As to his personal roots (as in upbringing and societal backdrop): power; wealth; and very, very rarely discussed DOD (Maternal Grandpa Lawrence Preston Gise) & CIA (Stepfather Pedro Pan, Miguel Bezos) connections from day one are his personal roots. One can even find most of that on Wikipedia.

          No person, who is not wealthy – who has far less of a long, long, long record of inhumane actions – is ‘appealed to’ to do the right thing, they are usually locked up, and many times killed before they can even defend themselves.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Money motivation on the part of the Seattle tourist industry.

      It’s better than nothing, though a ‘helping others in need just because’ mentality improves the world in more situations and more often.

      But that’s the way the world is, for now (‘that’s how adults get, or try to get, things done, kid’), though we can hope for a less selfish, less greedy, more compassionate world.

  7. johnnygl

    Good post and a welcome retort to those who answer the question by saying, “oh the weather is so nice it’s easier to cope with being homeless”

  8. TiPs

    I would think Airbnb is part of the problem as rental housing is converted (illegally) to this?

    1. Buzz Arnold

      True that, as well as “Vacation Rentals” of all sorts. It’s a terribly complex problem, one that will not be solved by a simple signature on some document. There are many reasons for being homeless, and it’s imperative that we separate folks that have various needs. For many, a simple place to stay until they can save enough for a deposit on a rental unit is all that’s needed. For others, people with medical issues or mental health problems, there has to be professional help and supervision available. There are so many things we COULD be doing that we’re not, whether it’s temporary shelter, or just evaluating whats needed. There will have to be some kind of decision made by governments, state, local, federal , before the issue begins to turn around. We live near Seattle, it’s a serious problem. We’ll see ? ?

      1. ambrit

        The underlying problem is that back in the 1980’s, decisions were made by governments to essentially abandon the poor and destitute “to their fates.” The big mental facilities were deconstructed and ‘outsourced.’ The level of funding for the follow-up ‘services’ were, if results are any guide, reduced. The cracks that people fell through became progressively wider, and capable of accommodating more and more ‘deplorables.’ At this point, the governments are not responding to the real needs of the populace. Time to replace those governments. One way or another.

        1. Anon

          Actually, it began in the 70’s, with the rise of Ronald Reagan. Not only were mental hospitals “down-sized” but laws were put in place that restrained the use of “unilateral commitment”. The political culture in the US since has exacerbated the growing number of people unable to function in a high speed, high pressure, low tolerance society. A more considerate, compassionate culture is needed. We have spent Trillion$ intervening in the Middle East maybe it’s time to spend some money on the native born.

  9. jefemt

    Weather and climate are decidedly factors– it is milder on the left coast.

    10% of US population is in Cali– there are simple statistics at work, as well.

    The many other factors are fact. I question the NODak numbers… I worked in the oilfields in NoDak for several years, the locals frequently remarked that the ferocious winters were a blessing to keep Mr Riff and Ms Raff out. Ironic in a fairly churchy state— some Christian behavior and mind-set!! Population is a big factor— ND has less than a Million residents- sheltered or otherwise.

    Reading Hard Times by Studds Terkel- timely and can’t recommend it highly enough. History rhymes and repeats

    Finally, an distressingly awful lot of ‘the other’ and ‘them’ lack-of-compassion comparison/ rationalizing in our world. All is suffering…

    1. Arizona Slim

      Oh, brother. Mr. Riff and Ms. Raff. Reminds me of a story from the Arizona Slim family file:

      While my father was still alive and healthy, he and my mother ran community suppers at their church. The church parish hall was open to all comers, and Mom, Dad, and the other parishioners offered a free meal.

      Well, guess what. Those community suppers proved to be quite popular.

      So, Mom reached out to a nearby church, and she was told that they didn’t want anything to do with THOSE people.

  10. The Rev Kev

    How about that. I would have thought that California had so many homeless people for the same reason that major motion-picture companies set up shop there 110 years ago – because there is such a mild, sunny climate there and not cruel, frosty days like in other States to contend with. Just punching in the term ‘California homeless’ into YouTube comes up with a whole series of tragic videos.
    I suppose re-instating FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief program is out of the question then? I have read that there are at least half a million homeless living in America but I suspect may be on the low side as who really keeps track of people that have been abandoned?
    If they could all be gathered up and sent to a region where they could be taken care of and all America’s cities be emptied of homeless people, you want to know what would happen? Pretty soon there would be a whole new cohort of homeless people as the present neoliberal economy would ‘recruit’ a new bunch. It’s a feature, not a bug.

    1. none

      the same reason that major motion-picture companies set up shop there 110 years ago

      They did that because Thomas Edison controlled a bunch of patents on movie making equipment and was ferociously litigious and you couldn’t movies in New York (where they started) without being exposed to constant legal battles. So the studios moved to California to be as far as possible from Edison and his lawyers.

  11. Tree-toes

    Here at Lake Tahoe, development planning entails a consideration of the number of proposed houses for the 1% and then a derived number of “required” low-income housing. The developers never actually build the low-income parts. They instead pay a mitigation fee that is a fraction of the real cost of building them. The money goes into the county general fund.

    It’s a bribe, people.

    There are any number of similar mitigation costs associated with a proposed development, such as fire protection: one proposal in particular, here in Alpine Meadows, has only one ingress/egress. This is a box canyon topography and the distance to the closest manned 24/7 firestation is more than five miles and 15 minutes. The mitigation? Buy a fire truck and give it to the local fire district. Build a solution? Not mandated. Outside the scope of the planning/evaluation parameters. Pointed questions go into the round filing cabinet.

    This polemic is another quanta in observation of the power of money, and very abstracted but very real institutionalized corruption.

  12. IronForge

    The Shelter Services do not cater to the Elderly – especially if they have Alzheimer’s.

    If a family consists of mixed genders, genders are separated, so if the Elderly/Alzheimer’s Member is the only male or female of the household, the Shelters won’t take in the Household.

    E.g., Elderly/Alzheimer’s Father and Caregiver Daughter become homeless. Shelters won’t acommodate since they tend to separate genders; and don’t have the means to watch over Alzheimer’s/Assistance-Required Elderly. Not even a “2- person room” w/shower.

    This may apply to other assist-intensive families as well.

    1. Jean

      Except public spending has gone up by a factor of four since it passed…Prop 13 is rent control for homeowners, and, unfortunately a feeding opportunity for big corporations.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Is it public spending, or public spending per student?

          I think there are a lot more students today.

          That will help in determining if we’re spending more, about the same or less.

  13. TimmyB

    Around two years ago, I went to an event for concerned citizens on homelessness hosted by my Los Angeles city counsel member. It was a propaganda performance where, although there were hundreds of people in attendance, not a single question was taken from the audience. The main “expert” on homelessness was a police sergeant who said some of the most completely illogical things I’ve ever heard. For example, he said the homeless should not be provided tents because gang members could surprise tent dwellers and attack them as they exited the tent. As if gang members can’t attack you if you are sleeping on a sidewalk.

    They also had a homeless resident who they hailed as a success story. Workers from the official approved charity had made contact with her, provided her with services and eventually, while she was still living on the street because there are too few shelters, helped her apply for a Section 8 housing voucher. And she had gotten on about two weeks before the meeting.

    Aftrr her “story” was told, she was brought on stage to a round of cheers. She thanked all the right people and then left the stage. The show continued.

    A charity worker who had worked with this homeless person later spoke. She said that with some luck, the homeless woman would soon be able to find an apartment, but there were very few places that would accept Section 8 vouchers.

    So really, the one homeless success story that was cherry picked for this event was a complete failure. While this woman did everything right and eventually received a Section 8 voucher, she was still homeless and living on the streets.

    The meeting was enlightening alright, but not in the way our local politician wanted.

    1. jrs

      I think I know the kind of meeting you talk of in the L.A. area, where a lot of concerned citizens actually are concerned about the issue of homelessness, and the politicians use it to grandstand their careers etc.. I have heard all about these.

      Ah another blue day in a blue city in a blue state, don’t trip on a homeless person while out and about!

  14. Jean

    “Some assume that homelessness is so common on the West Coast because people move here when they become homeless…Most people experience homelessness close to where they lost their housing.”

    As a lifetime resident of San Francisco and eyewitness to ‘homelessness’ for the last fifty plus years, starting with the Summer of Love, I agree with this. People come here with enough money for a few months rent or a vehicle in which to live. This doesn’t change the fact that they are not from here. Personal anecdote–never once have I met a homeless person who attended local public schools or grew up in San Francisco.

    They come believing that things will work out. The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper runs the Season of Sharing articles around Christmastime. Story after story about people who came to the city “to reinvent them self” to “seek sexual freedom to be who they are”, to escape “whatever” back home. They have no family or social connections here and then they have to compete for jobs with locals or ‘migrants’ who also take up less expensive housing that might be available. After a while they are flat broke.

    The quantity of city services offered in San Francisco makes it an ideal place to come if you are already homeless/hopeless, or are one of the “useless people” as mentions in Yuval Hariri’s Sapiens. A look at the list of services offered to the homeless is instructional.

    1. Elizabeth

      I’ve lived in SF for 30+ years. Mainly, I think the homelessness crisis is due to stagnant wages and unaffordable housing. Wolf Street recently had a post about this – there are lots of empty apts. around, but not many can afford a $3,500 – $4,000/monthly rent. Gentrification has also played a huge role in this crisis. The tech industry also has contributed to this crisis – these big corps. pay very little or no taxes (Twitter), which is criminal, in my opinion.

      I’ve read a lot of Season of Sharing stories, and the thing that stuck with me is that many people had jobs, homes, but due to a medical issue, unplanned emergency or job loss, it resulted in losing their housing. Most of them are Bay Area residents. Getting back on your feet is very difficult if you have to pony up security deposit/first and last month’s rent, and this is what the Season of Sharing does. Actually it needs to be a year-round operation.

      I’ve also heard that unsheltered people do not like to stay in shelters because they don’t feel safe. I believe the time one can spend in a shelter is limited, so that’s a problem also. It’s not a permanent solution. This is a complex problem, and to me, it’s a reminder that so many people are one paycheck away from being on the street.

    2. JBird

      I am a native, and I assure people that being a native in no real way protects you from homelessness, although it does make it a little less likely that one will become homeless.

      Every year the difference between wages and housing costs increases a little bit. Fifty years ago one could rent a full size apartment, or even an often not very good full size house, on a minimum wage equivalent to $11 an hour and now one needs at least $20 an hour to just rent a small apartment, but the State’s minimum wage is $11 and San Francisco’s is $14. It makes sense that homelessness is increasing especially as fairly high paying, often union jobs, were then much more common, and in a greater variety.

      Why it is almost as if some of the bashers of the homeless are being willfully blind to this reality, and instead live in their own little phantasmic reality where only the Bad People go homeless for these facts are easy to see, if one wants to look, and hard to ignore, if one does not. Perhaps it is fear that makes them do this?

    3. TimmyB

      That’s a great website. (Sarcasm). However, go through that list and count the number of beds the places on that list provide to homeless people. Less that 1,000. And how many homeless live is SF? Thousands and thousands.

      The attitude that many of my fellow California residents have is that there are plenty of services available, so those who are on the streets are there by choice. That just isn’t true.

        1. JBird

          There are roughly twelve thousand homeless San Franciscans in a city of around 890,000 people which is 1.3%. I think this is similar throughout the San Francisco Bay Area albeit not quite as bad. It used to be hard to be homeless. Not it’s hard to be homed.

          My perception is that the increasing underfunding of social services along with the increasing mismatch of income and housing has been slow enough for many to deceive themselves. It is like with climate change being slow enough for the propaganda, misinformation, and the willful blindness to work. It is not until the ocean is carrying off the house that the problem will be acknowledged.

          1. Elizabeth

            The homeless count is based on people living on the street. I don’t believe it takes into account people living in their cars, vans, RVs and couch surfing. JBird you’re right – when I first moved here apartments were affordable based on one’s wages. Home prices were high (compared to other areas of the country), but they were affordable for many people. The wages have not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of living here. Also, the “gig” economy is big here, and I’m sure it helps people to make ends meet, as exploitative as they are. There have been stories about homeless teachers – many have to go elsewhere because living here is not an option at the present salaries.

            Recently in Berkeley, a group of people living in their RVs were rousted from the parking area near the marina – people complained they ruined the view. They didn’t know where to go – something is terribly wrong here. To me, it’s scary.

            1. JBird

              Recently in Berkeley, a group of people living in their RVs were rousted from the parking area near the marina – people complained they ruined the view. They didn’t know where to go – something is terribly wrong here. To me, it’s scary.

              Ruined the view? How charming. And soulless. At least they haven’t gotten to mass roundups, arrests, and busing. Yet.

  15. Adam Eran

    Michael Hudson has a lot to say about this. Essentially, if government does not tax away the profitability of speculating in land or housing, prices will rise until the financial sector has extracted every last nickel from the economy. That’s right, real estate taxes keep housing prices down!

    See realestate4ransom.com for a nice video summary.

    That means one of the root causes of un-affordable housing is California’s Prop 13.

    One other such cause is sprawl. This pattern of development is the essence of the extract/consume/discard culture. It’s also true that Sprawl Costs the Public More Than Twice as Much as Compact Development.

    I really recommend a look at Andres Duany’s lecture about the difference between sprawl and traditional neighborhoods to understand that distinction.

    Traditional neighborhoods are opposed by a lot of pseudo-science (“The pseudo-science of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success….to put it bluntly, [sprawl planners] are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the [19th] century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting.” —Jane Jacobs The Life and Death of the Great American City )

    The killer is that people prefer traditional neighborhoods, in fact pay premiums for them, but the bureaucracy of planners simply does not understand or permit them.

    In good news: The State of California is now requiring “Complete Streets” for new development, and has revised its environmental impact standards to focus on vehicle miles traveled rather than level of service (amount of congestion). Traditional neighborhoods cut VMT roughly in half.

  16. cm

    Easy solution — allow new trailer parks and other truly affordable housing. Allow easy development of 4-plexes.

    But property tax revenues won’t be as high, so this will never happen.

    1. JohnnyGL

      The NIMBY screams from homeowners in the area would be deafening.

      With property prices so high, the existing owners that are grandfathered in end up deeply committed to those high property prices, especially if their wages aren’t anywhere near the current level required to be able to afford where they live.

  17. Arthur Dent

    Many parts of the country with inexpensive land have trailer home parks and RV parks where people live that would likely be homeless in places like California and NYC.

    In some of the wilder states, you also end up with people who build their own shelters on public or abandoned lands, similar to settlers in the 1600s-1800s. Since people rarely go by, nobody really notices or cares. Or they may have bought or inherited that inexpensive land and it very cheap to keep, with minimal taxes. They would also be homeless in California or NYC.

    1. howseth

      We lived in a trailer park in one of the expensive coastal California counties (Santa Cruz) for 8 years: There are many trailer parks in Santa Cruz county. Some of the more expensive trailer park ‘trailers’ could match ‘regular’ home prices in other parts of the USA – those are usually the trailer parks that are co-op or condo – that is – the land beneath the (not-mobile) mobile home are owned by the residents. These parks are a good deal for those (middle income) residents.

      It is also more space efficient land use than a regular suburban development. However they are still barely affordable for many despite being less than 1/2 the cost of a ‘regular’ house here. Median home prices have now sky rocketed to $900,000 in Santa Cruz. (Overflow from Silicon Valley – 30 miles away?)

      We lived in one of the many ‘mobile’ home parks that was not co-op or condo (But not an RV park – these ‘trailers’ don’t go anywhere). These trailer parks were on privately owned land – either by one family or a corporation or a REIT. We owned the trailer – but paid space rent each month. We had rent control – and the total cost of home/rent was low enough for a low wage earner. It was quite nice overall. It fulfilled some of the county affordable housing criteria too.


      The mobile home park land owners of these non resident owned trailer parks in California banded together and sued to remove rent control in order to raise the space rents in these trailer parks – they sued and kept suing… eventually wearing out local towns – and/or cities – that caved in: the rent control was eliminated. Space rents in some cases then went up 3X – 5X even 10X ! Which then reduce the value of the mobile home to 0% in some cases – some trailers were abandoned. Life savings lost by some – since the trailers are owned by the resident. New homeless? – with the former resident, perhaps, still owing mortgage payments on the mobile home..

      Some parks made a short term agreement with the private land owner to raise space rent only 2X – but those agreements were limited to a certain number years than – who knows how high space rents will go? Or the remaining trailer owners will get bought out – and new expensive housing will replace the mobile home park.

      As for us, we sold our mobile home in 2010 before the rent control was completely eliminated – and have managed to find other affordable housing in Santa Cruz – but we almost did not…

      Santa Cruz is trying to figure out how to create more affordable housing – and struggling – the numbers of homeless living in the woods in my neighborhood in Santa Cruz city is somewhat staggering to me – Yes, the Grapes of Wrath comes to mind.

      Solution: I think we need a major ‘National’ federal project to create housing (and services) for the homeless. (States can administer it.) If need be – cut the national defense budget – or raise taxes. or both.

      1. Joe Renter

        I grew up in Santa Cruz from 1964 to 1984. The trailer parks then were mostly full of retired people who came from the central valley to escape the heat. It was such a great place to live at one time. I saw the the problems starting to come as I was leaving the city for the north west. Too much greed all around is what I have come to witness, in my 61 one years.
        Really tragic what has happened to this country. I have not given enough of my resources to the needy though, so I am part of the problem as well. It’s not too late if we would make our brothers need a measure of our own. Failed empire in the making it seems it we don’t change our priorities quickly.

  18. none

    My team’s research in Oakland found that 81 percent of older adults who are homeless became homeless in the Bay Area. Only 10 percent had lost their housing outside of California.

    Not to be morbid but maybe that’s a less interesting statistic than it might sound. I’d like to know if people hit comparable economic trouble less often in places where the weather is worse. My guess is probably not. The weather does make a difference. Homelessness in California is unhealthy and dangerous but probably not immediately fatal for most people. Spend a winter night unsheltered in San Francisco and you’ll probably be alive the next day. Do the same thing in Toronto and you’ll be an icicle. So someone who loses their home in Toronto or NY absolutely has to do something about it immediately. California is more of a boiling frog situation.

    That is I can’t conclude from the report that CA has a worse housing affordability problem than other places. I could agree that it leads to different outcomes.

  19. Claudia

    40 years of unrelenting GENTRIFICATION…aided by Ronnie Reagan closing mental institutions, promising community support that never happened.

  20. LC

    Bummer, as is usually the case when a topic comes up online that I would love to add input to regarding first hand experience, I have no time to do it justice. I will say, as regards the San Francisco Bay Area, one main answer is that the area has for decades been run by Democrats – who had always been considered to be the party who would not allow such a thing to happen by voters who cared about such things– so the problem, which has been growing for quite some time now, was mostly ignored until Trump was elected. The United Nations Tour of US Poverty, which included San Francisco, should have taken place quite some time ago, while Obama was in his first term (e.g.: https://www.mercurynews.com/2009/12/22/santa-cruz-service-honors-homeless-dead/).

    I haven’t, for sometime, and likely will never: vote for a Democrat again in life due to my decades long experience of Silicon Valley, where I at one time voted for many of the people who allowed this to happen. If I wanted to sign on to being treated like a disposable, I would vote for a Republican.

    (Also, to those speaking of how warm California is to be homeless there, in the Bay Area, it can get extremely cold at night (e.g.: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/2-more-deaths-may-be-linked-to-cold-snap-5049471.php), even in the summer, particularly in the San Francisco area.)

  21. Hot Dog McKoy

    Water, housing and healthcare are the commodities
    The poisoned, homeless and bankrupt are the casualties

    Entrepeneurs, Silicone valley and Hollywood are the prescriptions
    Tent cities, fleeing natives and overcrowding are the side effects

  22. RUKidding

    Recently I attended a community gathering about homelessness held and organized by the Sacramento County Public Library.

    The biggest factor attributed to causing homelessness was not substance abuse and/or mental illness (although those do contribute) but mostly due to lack of affordable housing. As others have pointed out, housing costs – whether to buy or rent – are out of control and rapidly out of reach for far too many citizens. And no community of which I’m aware has come up with a solution.

    There have been endless “discussions” (wanking) about rent control, whether to erect tent communities and so forth. Everyone – from the local councils on up and including local residents – whines and complains that providing ANYTHING akin to helping the homeless will just “invite” more to come and live here. There’s some truth to that, but still… now we are faced with feces and urine in our streets and other public spaces, which has led to Hepatitis epidemics in various communities. Great.

    At our community discussion we were asked to consider opening our homes to take in lodgers. Some people are doing that. And so on.

    But the high cost of living here (and elsewhere) is a huge part of this picture across the nation.

    I do believe, though, that people come to CA seeking to improve their lives on some level or another, and anymore, that’s a big mistake. Yes, the climate tends to be better, but then you’re somewhere where you know no one, and the cost of living is sky high.

    It’s anecdotal, but I’ve read quite a few newspaper articles about the homeless that include stories about people who ran into problems – losing jobs, bad divorces, losing friends & relations to death, illness, etc – which led to homelessness in some other state. Somehow they ended up out here in CA. A recent article discussed a 60 year old woman from TN but didn’t specify why or how she came here after losing everything in TN recently.

    I do wish there was more information about this phenomenon, but I can state for the record that it’s not a wise idea to come to CA if you’re down and out. Sadly, there’s too few well-paying jobs and almost nowhere to live unless you’re making at least close to $50,000 per year.

  23. LC

    From this August 2017 article regarding 2016 statistics (one of the horridly rare Bay Area News Group pieces that addressed the increased Boomer™ deaths among the homeless Report: Homeless deaths up 164 percent in Santa Clara County [Silicon Valley]:

    SAN JOSE >> As the homeless population of Silicon Valley ages [I take issue with that slithery wording, I suspect that increasing amounts of Boomer renters are becoming homeless, versus all of those aging having been homeless for quite some time – LC], more of them are dying, sometimes in hospitals and sometimes on the streets. And a new county report takes a closer look at what’s going on.

    According to the report from the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner’s Office, the number of homeless deaths in Santa Clara County increased 164 percent from 2011 to 2016, with a sharp spike in the past year.

    In human terms, that’s 50 in 2011, to 85 in 2015 to 132 last year. And the rise specific to those over 65 is more extreme, going from five to 22 in five years: a 340 percent increase.

    For the record, every homeless, and previously homeless person I’ve spoken with in Silicon Valley was from the adjoining neighborhood, so tired of the mythology that’s been perpetrated about Blue, Meritocratic, Silicon Valley.

    1. LC

      A side note, specific to Santa Clara County Homelessness. Had the Empire State of California, and more importantly, the US government, since it’s inception, treated renters as equal human beings, one might not have witnessed renters agreeing to rent places they’re given no disclosure on, and at such inhuman costs.

      Santa Clara County is utterly loaded with toxic and or at threat housing which is now renting for 2,600 to 3,000 plus a month for a one bedroom just north of San Jose in cities which are quite large and never discussed, such as Santa Clara and Sunnyvale (a very large, Historically Lockheed, and Chamber of Commerce/Rotarian Club lead community, in Millionaire Ro Khanna’s District 17), the cops in these areas appear to make sure the vehicle-less homeless migrate to San Jose). Palo Alto and Mountain View, with similar rents, get a bit more media play. All four Santa Clara County cities have active superfund cite issues (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Superfund_sites_in_California#Santa_Clara_County).

      The apartment I live in: has horrid as yet unexplained and rectified PG&E issues, is in a flood zone (this Silicon Valley Flood Zone tragedy, which left working people homeless and belonging-less) has had me horrified ever since, yet I can no longer afford to move, or stay – having been effectively early retired, despite a profession I was very good at, and then struck with cancer ); has Asbestos ‘Popcorn’ ceilings, was shabbily built to the extent the developer finally was forced out of business, and is within less than a mile to a three mile radius of numerous of the 23 still active toxic SuperFund sites in Santa Clara County [1] (not to even mention those declared Not On The National Priorities List) and a Breast Cancer Cluster.

      To her credit, my landlady never raised the rent, and when I showed myself to be good for paying on time, she even revealed all the issues she had with the place when she lived there; but she never informed about the flood zone, the asbestos, and all of those superfund sites –though I must say maybe she doesn’t even know about those superfund sites – and was not required to.

      If Landlords in Silicon Valley had been required to disclose potentials hazards to life in Silicon Valley, the rents would have never risen so high. Further, thousands of the new Apartment Homes™ (including the $3,000+ one bedrooms), are being built in that Superfund vicinity, and flood zones, which renters are not required to be informed of.

      [1] How quaint, and how effing Late (June, 2017), that KQED chose to highlight this – post Shrub Bush and Obama, and post: Apple/Google/Facebook/Amazon Campuses from East Menlo Park, down to South San Jose – when it’s been known for decades: Silicon Valley’s Toxic Past Haunts Sunnyvale Neighborhood

      Ditto the New York Times, last month: The Superfund Sites of Silicon Valley

  24. Glen

    It’s not the lack of affordable housing, it’s poor jobs with poverty wages. Today I read that there is no affordable housing for people on minimum wages anywhere in the US.

    Want to fix it? Tax the top .1 income at 90%, divide that bundle of loot evenly and give it to everybody else. Remember the added bonus is they leave so we also get a stream of powerful sociopaths getting out of our society.

  25. A little honesty won't hurt

    This is going to sound heartless, but stick with me.

    Some of the homeless in California would not be homeless in other parts of the country. To many commenter’s point, CA has a housing problem. Coastal CA can’t house at a reasonable price all of the people who have moved here in the last 30 years. For those who might not be homeless in less expensive locales, the rational, wise choice would be to move.

    The other categories of homelessness – addicts, mentally ill, ex-cons and frankly those that are choosing to be feral – need help specific to their needs. That might first be someone establishing trust with them to get them to come to a shelter or receive meds for mental disorders. For those who want to be feral, there isn’t any help they would likely accept.

    1. LC

      @ A little honesty won’t hurt,

      Re your words:

      This is going to sound heartless, but stick with me.

      Some of the homeless in California would not be homeless in other parts of the country. To many commenter’s point, CA has a housing problem. Coastal CA can’t house at a reasonable price all of the people who have moved here in the last 30 years. For those who might not be homeless in less expensive locales, the rational, wise choice would be to move.

      The other categories of homelessness – addicts, mentally ill, ex-cons and frankly those that are choosing to be feral – need help specific to their needs. That might first be someone establishing trust with them to get them to come to a shelter or receive meds for mental disorders. For those who want to be feral, there isn’t any help they would likely accept.

      If you knew it sounded heartless, and it did, why would you utter it, given that there were more than a few in the comments above who were in despair? You either don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, or you’re deliberately perpetrating passive aggressive, age old bull and mythology as if people go out of there way to become homeless, when their entire (or much of their) adult lives have been spent in a community where: they’ve lived and worked; their elderly parents rely on them; they receive desperately needed familial and societal support; have finally hooked up a good doctor who cut’s them a break and medical treatment; the renowned trauma of a major move (particularly when one is already traumatized by a State and Local Government who’ve utterly betrayed them) etcetera.

      There are so very many valid reasons why people don’t and can’t just move, including no landlord will rent to them when jobless, or effectively early retired!!! You can’t bother to acknowledge a one of them?

      Either way, it’s not a ‘good look’ at all, particularly when it’s done at the tail end of a thread, as if the final word, at an hour when no one was further commenting. By the way, that word, Feral, can certainly be more appropriately applied to the predator class who are making life unbearable for so very many.

  26. BRW

    Being born in the USA is winning the global lottery, like being born on 1st and goal. Imagine life for the billions NOT born in the USA? Look at the masses trying to flood into the country too (like my family did). Hard to believe so many struggle to get their lives in order here. Seriously.

  27. Michael K

    I’ve lived in the SF Bay Area since 1994 and bought my 2BR townhouse in Santa Clara in 2004 for $530k – already a considerable sum. The home is now valued at $1.25 million. No unit in my development is valued at less than $1 million, regardless of its size or condition.

    A friend just sold his late parents’ small 3BR home in Mountain View that they had purchased new for $14k in 1955. The selling price was $2.5 million, 25% over the asking price.

    Very little housing stock has been added around here in recent decades, and the Silicon Valley boom has brought in hundreds of thousands of tech workers from around the world. People are living in overstuffed apartments like New York and Washington during WWII. Teachers, public safety, and other vital professionals cannot afford to move here. When the ones that are here retire, life here will become truly awful for nearly everybody.

    Forget about working class people and others who are living on the fringes of our economy. There is nothing for them. Every day, I see homeless encampments everywhere I look – even the interiors of freeway on/off ramps! Any little strip of unusable land is covered with makeshift tents, shopping carts, and the debris of people just trying to stay alive.

    And yet the tech barons talk about bringing in even more jobs. They say it as if they expect us to be grateful to them.

    Yes, I and my neighbors have all become paper millionaires, but we’ve lost our community and our public areas are becoming blighted with the castoffs of our economy.

    Shame on us.

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