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.”