Low Wages and Rising Cost of Living Are Driving More Into Homelessness as Government Tries to Hide Rather than Solve Problem 

A common talking point about the homelessness crisis is that the majority of people living on the streets are drug addicts and/or mentally ill. New research in California – which has roughly a third of the country’s 582,000 homeless population – shows that while mental illness and addiction play a role, the main driver behind homelessness is the increasinging precariousness of the working poor.

The study from UCSF’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative is one of the deepest dives into the state’s crisis, and it shows how the homeless population is getting older and is often the result of just one bad break. From the Los Angeles Times:

“These are old people losing housing,” Dr. Margot Kushel told me. She’s the lead investigator on the study from UCSF’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, done at the request of state health officials.

“They basically were ticking along very poor, and sometime after the age of 50 something happened,” Kushel said. That something — divorce, a loved one dying, an illness, even a cutback in hours on the job — sparked a downward spiral and their lives “just blew up,” as Kushel puts it.

Kushel and her team found that nearly half of single adults living on our streets are over the age of 50. And 7% of all homeless adults, single or in families, are over 65. And 41% of those older, single Californians had never been homeless — not one day in their lives — before the age of 50.

The study also disproved the myth that people are flocking to California to live the good homeless life there. Most of the homeless people on California‘s streets are Californians who were simply priced out of housing. Is it any wonder that a new poll shows 4 in 10 residents of the state are considering heading for the exits?

The problem is it’s a national issue. Americans are falling further and further behind as the cost of living rises and corporate profits hit record highs. The increase in homelessness (and deaths of the homeless) has also come during the Wall Street takeover of rental properties, creating rental behemoths that have increasingly been using information-sharing algorithms that simultaneously drive up evictions, rents, and vacancy rates.

And nationwide research by the University of California, Riverside (UCR) published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the death of 183,000 Americans aged 15 years old and above in 2019 could be attributed to poverty.

Additionally, the ongoing pandemic is likely only exacerbating this trend. Research shows the life expectancy gap between rich and poor widening as the difference between work from home and “essential” workers takes its toll.

The UCR study shows that poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the US after heart disease, cancer, and smoking, and poverty remains a huge issue in the U.S., much more so than in other “developed” countries. More from Newsweek:

“As a risk factor, poverty kills more people than Alzheimer’s, strokes, and diabetes,” David Brady, professor of public policy at UCR and lead researcher in the study, told Newsweek. While death is the “ultimate bad outcome,” poverty has also been linked to several negative health outcomes including stress and depression.

“Of course, there’s some circularity with some health conditions,” Brady said. “If you’re physically disabled, you have a serious back injury and you can’t work, that’s probably going to make you more economically insecure, which then is going to feed into depression and so forth. These things all work together in concert.”

As the UCSF study showed, many of the older people living on the streets were chewed up and spit out after working for most of their lives in physically demanding jobs like construction and warehouse work. When their bodies can no longer handle such demands, one bad break can pull the rug out, and there’s no safety net there to break the fall.

The ultimate result? The life expectancy of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County as of 2019 was 48 for women and 51 for men – compared to 83 and 79 among the general population.

If you think any of this would be a source of utter shame for Democrat-run California or a national embarrassment for the US, you would be wrong.

Is Anything Being Done to Fix the Problem? 

While California Governor Gavin Newsom uses the homeless crisis as an excuse to engage in a highly unusual pressure campaign on behalf of developers, the state’s proposed budget maintains the status quo.

A budget deal reached Monday allocates $1 billion to help with the housing crisis. That’s the same amount as the last two years and includes no new programs or strategies. From Cal Matters:

Local leaders and activists say Newsom’s current approach — handing out one-time grants every year instead of guaranteed ongoing funding — is hampering their efforts to make a dent in the problem. The League of California Cities, which asked for a guaranteed $3 billion a year, earlier this month said it’s “incredibly disappointed” in the budget’s lack of ongoing funding.

It’s the same story nationwide. The Biden administration plan, “All In,” was released late last year and set the goal to reduce homelessness 25 percent by 2025. (So not quite All In.)

Even if this “ambitious” goal were to be met (it won’t), that would still mean 436,500 people were homeless. All In doesn’t really propose anything new, nor does it provide a substantial funding boost. It’s essentially a plan to make more plans, and does nothing to stop or even slow the feasting on Americans by every industry from payday lenders and food companies to healthcare and corporate landlords.

Without fixing these structural issues, all the billions spent on the problem won’t make a dent in the numbers because for every homeless individual who gets back into housing, many more are taking their place on the streets.

Homelessness prevention would require taking on this rapaciousness, and getting people off the streets would take government intervention like public housing and compassionate daily care for people with mental illness. Our government refuses to do any of this despite the increasing public concern over poverty. From Newsweek:

Poverty remains a huge issue in the U.S., much more so than in other countries with similar levels of distributed wealth, and it is a cause of concern for a majority of Americans, as shown by the Newsweek/Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll. The poll, conducted among a sample of 1,500 eligible voters in the U.S. on May 31, found that some 53 percent of Americans are “very” concerned about the level of poverty in the country.

Among Democrats—identified as people who voted for Joe Biden in 2020—the number went up to 58 percent, while among Republicans—identified as people who voted for Donald Trump in 2020—48 percent said they were “very” concerned about poverty in the U.S. Some 21 percent of Americans responding to the poll don’t earn enough money from their primary job to pay bills or maintain their family’s standard of living, while 52 percent are working multiple jobs to tackle the daily cost of living.

What’s Being Done to Hide the Problem?

If you want to see real government action to tackle the problem, look at the wave of bipartisan laws to criminalize homelessness. Blue states, red states, purple states, they all agree that once our society fails people, they must be moved out of sight and out of mind.

In addition to localities criminalizing homelessness, California has gone a step further and created a whole new legal system to deal with people living on the streets. California CARE courts are launching this year in seven counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, and San Francisco.

These courts will allow the state to force the unhoused into court-ordered treatment programs for a period of up to two years and/or into a broken conservatorship system. While the mentally ill ending up in prison or on the streets has been a problem for decades ever since the deinstitutionalization movement, opponents of the law have pointed out, the criteria are subjective, speculative, subject to bias, and could potentially ensnare anyone who is homeless if the state is motivated to do so.

As the government turns to increasingly draconian measures to disappear the homeless, it’s worth remembering that according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would cost about $20 billion to end homelessness in the US. Since January of last year, the Biden administration has sent roughly $80 billion to Ukraine to fund the proxy war effort against Russia.

Meanwhile, the US poverty rate – which is set ridiculously low – remains essentially unchanged from half a century ago. Over that same time period wealth and income inequality continues to explode. Rebecca Riddell, the economic justice policy lead for Oxfam America, told Newsweek:

“Persistent poverty in the U.S. is really about policy choices,” she said. “The choices that have been made on taxes, on the social safety net, on corporate power, on public services—those have not been designed in order to end poverty and hardship, and in many ways, they contributed to skyrocketing inequality.”

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  1. Amateur Socialist

    Very good analysis that corresponds to my direct experience here in southern VT. At least 1/3 of the people I deliver meals to in the “voucher motel” program here are newly homeless and over 50. They have no experience being homeless. They are PTSDd beyond their capacities. And the Democrats in Montpelier can’t find a clue with both hands and a flashlight.

    Articles like this make me remember the Oscar winner of 2020 Nomadland starring Frances McDormand. There is a critical scene in the first act where she is discussing her available options with another older woman who is talking about her Social Security benefits. Paraphrasing, she exclaims something like “$540 how is anybody supposed to find a way to live on that for a month…” How indeed.

    We know that the last 30 years experiment with 401Ks has failed. We know we need to strengthen Social Security benefits to address this policy failure and protect vulnerable populations. But I know JR Biden from 40 years experience.

    If the party understood the election ahead to be as difficult as it is, they’d probably try to mitigate this. There are a lot of votes among the newly unhoused, or at least there used to be. But as this piece makes clear JR Biden’s party is solidly in the “see no poverty” camp. And the ship of fools thinks they have only clear sailing to re-election. (Once they find the $1B+ ad budget that is… and yes they are working hard at that)

    1. VT Digger

      All Montpelier knows how to do re: housing in VT is give more money to real estate developers…just farcicle…

      “It’s different this time! We’re sure they will build Affordable housing! We made them pinky promise!”

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        You make a point that bothers me every time my sister tells me how much the local county spends to house some welfare recipients in crappy run-down motels in the area. It appears to me that a lot of the money for housing the poor is going into fat handouts for the owners of the crappy motels, and I suspect those owners are well-placed in the local politics.

    2. Alex Cox

      But as long as millionaire Hollywood actors warn us of the problem, there is still hope, right?

      1. Eben

        “Nomadland” propaganda film
        1) Amazon is the gracious savior
        2) people are on the rode because they choose to be, even when family offers to give a roof. They are not Nomads because of financial loss or loss of home. They like the life. ??!!

        I found the film disgusting to say the least considering this crisis and unchecked rental prices in all markets.

    3. Eclair

      Thank you, Amateur Socialist, for your comment and for your work trying to alleviate some of the worst effects of our crazy system.
      We had a long discussion one evening last week, our weekly ‘pub night,’ with friends at a brewery in Warren, Pennsylvania. Warren is a once wealthy small city, ten miles south of Jamestown, NY, the city that globalization forgot. Warren derived its wealth from early 20th century extraction activities: oil and timber, with manufacturing facilities to support these functions (tool and die, machining, pumps, etc.) It has been down, way down, and is now experiencing some faint rays of hope. Much of that hope is based on small businesses, like the excellent brewery, right on the banks of the beautiful Allegheny River. Like we can recover our national greatness if we make and drink enough beer. But, that’s a discussion for another day.
      There was a petition on the bar, asking for patrons to sign and protest the building of a low-income senior housing project in the decaying downtown area. It would involve tearing down an existing building (Warren has architecturally significant, well-built brick and granite office buildings) and putting up a four-story apartment; a ‘public-private partnership.’
      Discussion turned to downtown Jamestown, where early 20th century hotels have been converted to SRO’s and a new apartment ‘tower’ for low-income seniors was built a decade ago. Unfortunately, the designers neglected to provide garden / park areas where these mostly immobile residents can sit, walk, socialize. So, they sit on the sidewalks. Infuriating those local residents who are trying to ‘develop’ downtown with the Lucy and Desi Museum and the new, multi-million dollar National Comedy Center. The refrain runs, “tourists are turned off by all the scruffy people littering the sidewalks.”
      You have the greedy developers, the corrupt local politicians, the hapless seniors trying to eek out their social security checks and get to their doctor appointments, the down-and-out poor, the irate better-off residents who don’t want to be reminded daily of their less fortunate brethren, because this might be their future. Messy and potentially lethal.

    4. Bill White

      I once saw a cartoon in the Louisville Courier Journal. The caption was “There’s only one candidate who is truthful about what he believes” and had a picture of Ross Perot running through the frame shouting “Aliens have taken over my brain.”

  2. John R Moffett

    It is strange how Americans don’t seem to understand that this is a problem that is unique to America among developed countries. Unregulated capitalism combined with extreme wealth accumulation has led to a completely broken system that does not work for almost half of the people living here. And it is just getting worse over time. The infrastructure is deteriorating and life expectancy is dropping, while the wealthy elite hoard ever more money to continue their assault on the people of this country. It is only going to change if the PMC decide that they don’t want to live in a country where they have to step over homeless people wherever they go. It will take a lot of pressure from the comfortable directed at the wealthy elite for anything to change, and I just don’t see that happening.

    1. jefemt

      The solution du jour on homeless is refugee camps in Bumphuc Flyover.
      Empathy, South Dakota.
      Compassion, Wyoming

      We are oxymorons.

    2. Mikel

      More people in the countries that are “allies” to the USA and those mimicking trends in the USA , enthralled with America’s corporate hype about “the future,” need to wake up and see this is what is in store for them.

    3. Roland

      By no means unique to USA. Canada has the same homelessness problem, for the same reason (soaring rents), with the same official response (spend a lot of money managing the problem while doing nothing to solve it).

  3. griffen

    Life in Joe Biden America is great, just some of us are failing on all our own \ sarc

    There is a talking head for the administration on CNBC this morning, about how good things really are and the plan of Biden economics is a wonder to behold for the average American family. One major quibble I have to make, creating 13 million jobs is not the same as “refilling” the jobs lost during a Pandemic. Oh and the supply chain is no longer “snarled” ( which is good to know ).

    Pass the hopium, I’d like another serving. Inflation is down, yes, but inflation at 4.0% ish is not the same as inflation at 2.0% or below.

    1. cnchal

      >. . . about how good things really are . . .

      Amazon PE > 300

      Insanely good, I would say.

    2. Amateur Socialist

      13 million jobs created and some of them pay enough you only need 2 or 3 of them.

      1. Randy

        2-3 jobs per person was an old Clinton era yardstick.

        Today that has inflated to 4 jobs per person. Maybe 5 in California?

  4. eg

    America’s profligacy with respect to wholesale abandonment of human potential is simply staggering — the opioid crisis, its abject Covid response and growing homeless population being the latest examples.

    This is “the shining city on a hill?”

  5. Stephen

    The CARE court system sounds a bit like a modern day version of the Dickensian work house system associated with Britain’s 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Only with different rhetoric and a cuddly acronym.

  6. jefemt

    I think I realized the futility of ‘the game’ in around ’09- thinking one might actually win a round or two, much less the Jackpot.

    I put the shovel down and took a break from shoveling like an immigrant laborer.

    Now I shovel like a Millennial. Re-defining Woke.

  7. David in Friday Harbor

    The LATimes reporting on the Benioff study brought a refreshing perspective. It’s been frustrating to read frequent editorials lambasting local officials for not doing enough about homelessness. Local governments will never solve a problem caused by the job-killing asset-stripping that has been the mania American elites for the past 40-odd years.

    When I take the time to engage with Urban Outdoorsmen who haven’t yet descended into addiction and insanity I invariably find them to meet the profile described in the Benioff study. They lost blue collar jobs when companies left the community and were looking at a decade until they could draw the Social Security that will be insufficient for food and rent. At their age, you simply can’t survive on the streets or in the sanctioned tent encampments being thrown-up everywhere as a “solution.”

    Our incompetent-yet-so-entitled Secretary of State’s recent visit to China underlined how this will become worse. The Chinese government declared that it has no intention of clamping-down on fentanyl and meth precursors being exported to Mexico. China now makes enough cash from high-value exports to BRICS that they can strangle our supply of medicines, medical appliances, food packaging, and hardware in such a way that chaos and misery will be amplified among the 90 percent of Americans who aren’t our Billionaire Overlords or in the PMC who serve them.

    America is past the point of no return. The U.S. government’s sanctioning of endless wars, de-industrialization, globalization, low wages, borders open to powerful street drugs, and complete lack of compassion are destroying us from within. As always in a culture defined by Hollywood, the Cruelty is the Point.

    1. spud


      the millions of homeless would have worked in the factories, since bill clinton made policy that ensured those factories would move, the homeless get to watch hundreds of ships being unloaded monthly with the stuff we used to make, that employed them.

      giving the homeless more money, and not jobs being productive, that is producing americas goods and services, only means more money spent on chinese made stuff, that causes even more inflation.

      capital controls which is protectionism, can help alleviate high real estate prices because foreign money helps goose the real estate markets.

      of course when bill clinton repealed the new deal, america became a casino.

  8. JonnyJames

    Nice to see that some ivory-tower types have finally seen what is clear to those “on the receiving end of the cudgel” for many years.

    Food Not Bombs has a wealth of information on the hypocrisy of so-called “progressive” politicians and public figures, especially in so-called liberal California. Of course, California is not liberal, it is a right-wing authoritarian state with better and more expensive PR than others. I have to admit, the Gaviner is a slick-talking smooth operator that many find to be very handsome.


    The knee-jerk assumption that houseless folks are alcoholic drug addicts is very convenient. They are unworthy of empathy, and an aberration. The prevailing narrative, whether overtly or not, is “If you aint rich in America, you are stupid, lazy or both”. So when folks step over human feces and bodies in oh-so progressive SF, they can maintain their smug delusions.

    However, most house-less folks are invisible to the public. Car-dwellers, RV dwellers, and couch surfers abound.

    Here is an article from 6 years ago

    We have folks with PhDs working as “adjunct” (aka disposable) professors with no benefits, no possibility of tenure, and who are often only paid for the time they are in a classroom. They are not paid for marking exams papers etc. I know first hand about this as well.

    Add student loan debt and debt peonage to the equation and we have some real dystopia.

  9. JBird4049

    Good comments here. The only thing I can add is that for a small family to possibly have a working class existence in California is someone having a full time job earning more than $40 per hour with full benefits. It is back of the envelope figuring, but I think it’s accurate.

    I should also note that the official statistics on the rising cost of living, poverty, even homelessness are suspiciously low. I think that it started in the 80s, which I base only by the increasing separation from reality, which seems to have begun then.

  10. Barry

    As well as housing vouchers, shelter, wraparound services, and building more affordable housing, we also need to get back to regulation of our common space in cities where sidewalk tent camping and drug use has exploded. This includes being able to involuntarily commit someone who refuses to help themselves due to their addiction and mental health. Housing is a big big part of this but we must understand that the ready availability of cheap fentanyl and meth makes this situation much harder to address, and that there are those that are chronically homeless and most visible on our streets that will refuse shelter and housing. If they do get shelter they must have wraparound services, and be compelled to seek rehabilitation and recovery.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>As well as housing vouchers, shelter, wraparound services, and building more affordable housing, we also need to get back to regulation of our common space in cities where sidewalk tent camping and drug use has exploded.

      The unhousing of the mentally ill happened fifty years ago, but the amount of mental illness and drug addiction seen on the street has steadily increased during those fifty years. If there were affordable housing and decent jobs, a good amount of the insanity would go away as much, although not all, of the drug addiction and mental illness are knock-on affects of homelessness, which itself is the result of housing costs and the lack of employment. The destruction of the medical system is also a cause.

      The already corrupt government obeys the neighborhoods, developers, and now investment firms who do not want affordable housing, which even the middle class increasingly lacks. Investment firms, including the wealthy, also do not want decent jobs because that reduces their profits.

      Nothing well change aside from the increasing criminalization, police militarization, and the use of both private security goons and the national guard unless the corruption, enabled by the income and wealth disparity, goes away.

      Even now, California in general, and the San Francisco Bay Area and metropolitan Los Angeles, has the money and other resources to fix these problems, but wealthy interests block it with the state and various municipal political establishments not caring to override them.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      While some of the homeless started out mentally ill, and some of the homeless became mentally ill after their induction to the streets, it is true that many of the mentally ill are homeless — which explains why hikikomori over the age of 18 are less commonly found in the u.s. than in Japan. The cheap fentanyl and meth help keep the populations of homeless manageable, in both behavior and number. You could always think of them as aids to hunger, exposure, and disease in their work digesting the human costs of Neoliberal Capitalism.

  11. upstater

    A Record 100,000 People in New York Homeless Shelters
    An influx of migrants has contributed to record numbers of people entering the city’s shelter system.

    Eric Adams and Kathy Hochul have a solution! Send them to upstate NY counties with contracts at cheaper long stay hotels and displace the working poor locals. They’re doing to upstate NY what Abbott is doing to NYC. I wish they’d all go to DC.

    Meanwhile at Syracuse University hill, huge “luxury student housing apartments” continue to be built that rent for $1200-1500 per month for a bedroom in a 4BR apartment. They all get property tax waivers for 10 years.

    They all have priorities straight.

    1. griffen

      Reading the above, “$1200 to $1500 per month for a bedroom…”, do they call those luxury apartments student housing for the Blue Pill population. Brings to mind the scene from the Matrix!

  12. spud


    “… once in office, Clinton and his allies turned their backs on the labor movement that had made their careers possible, largely in hopes of discouraging anti-union companies from funding potential rivals or to undermine potential rivals on the left. Although political commentators date the birth of Clintonian triangulation—i.e. adopting some of your opponent’s policies to distance yourself from your base, move to the center, and broaden your electoral appeal—to the aftermath of the 1994 elections, Bill Clinton along with Pryor and Bumpers began employing it in the 1970s and the Arkansas labor movement was the target.

    There is no better example of this triangulation than the Labor Reform Bill of 1978. As anti-union enterprises found new ways to circumvent the National Labor Relations Board procedures—dragging out certification processes, illegally firing union activists and taking years to litigate challenges to these dismissals, and purposely violating laws knowing that the minimal fines would be a small price to pay to keep unions at bay—unions sought relief in the form of a new law to eliminate these practices. But Bill Clinton, Pryor, and Bumpers worked enthusiastically against the bill. Pryor made opposition the cornerstone of his 1978 senate bid. Bill Clinton, with the help of political consultant Dick Morris, wrote a series of ads for Pryor’s campaign warning that unions were “disastrous for the economy of Arkansas.” Bumpers joined the Senate filibuster that killed the bill.

    Triangulation made Clinton and his allies nearly unbeatable. Work with liberals on social issues and gestures to the black community allowed them to retain the backing of much of the left (who really had no one else to support), and their labor policies attracted the support (with various degrees of enthusiasm) of business conservatives. Unable to counter employer aggressiveness during a period of rampant inflation and trade pressures, Arkansas’s labor movement and the liberalism that it did so much to sustain withered, and the state began a political shift to the right. The Big Three easily accommodated themselves to this shift, supporting free trade, economic deregulation, and other elements of neoliberalism.”

  13. Phichibe

    After 2008 I waited for the return of Hoovervilles outside the big cities and was baffled that they didn’t materialize. It was only in the last five years that I became aware of the massive surge of homeless encampments in urban areas including downtown areas in SF and LA. In the age of the decentralized Web we now have decentralized Hoovervilles. Next stop Bladerunner.


  14. seabos84

    WTF – WHY didn’t they put the % of homeless who do NOT have addiction / mental problems in the first paragraph?
    This hunt and peck through policy papers is a pain in the ass.
    Based on little hard evidence, other than being 63, and being a serf in Boston and Seattle for 42 of the last 45 years, and living through decades of right wing lies about everything, I actually believe that most homeless can’t afford the ridiculous housing expenses.

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