California has to face the fact, over 100,000 of its residents are living in squalor. Feces, rats, disease and harsh elements plague the everyday lives of a growing population: California’s homeless.
It is hypocritical for a state to be a champion of wealth, innovation and liberalism, while also being home to 25% of the nation’s homeless population.
The simple question to ask, when passing tent city after tent city is, why? Why did the state fall into such a desperate situation during a time of seeming economic prosperity?
Housing has been notoriously expensive in California. With gorgeous landscapes, enviable weather and world famous zip codes; California attracts the wealthy, like bees to honey. Though, despite being one of the world’s most robust economies, many Californians are living near poverty, even in the seeming glitz of Hollywood and San Francisco.
An annual report released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, found that poverty levels remain high, at 18%. This number becomes more alarming when the nearly one in five Californians in danger of falling into poverty is factored in. Taking into account the two statistics, there are approximately 12 million Californians living below or near the poverty line.
The reason? Living costs are becoming unaffordable for millions of everyday Californians.
There was a long standing adage that while California was more expensive, people also made more money. That rationale is now just a bad excuse for the 12 million aforementioned. Wages have remained stagnant while rent costs have increased 32% since the year 2000. The rising rents now take up the majority of earnings.
In its 2019 report, the PPIC urged that 500,000 units of affordable housing would be needed in order to effectively lift some of California’s homeless population, while also helping those straddling the poverty line. Yet, that number was also suggested in 2017.
When asked why they fell into homelessness, 53% cited economic hardship and the rise of housing costs.
These issues leave two major demographics that are particularly vulnerable: the young and the elderly.
Young people struggle with competing in an ever-growing and ever-changing economy. Many entered adulthood as the country was reeling from the 2008 Recession. They also were met with the looming costs of student debt, stagnant wages and a growing number of underemployed college graduates.
The elderly pose their own set of unique and complex issues.
From 2007 to 2014, elderly homeless population jumped 22% in Los Angeles. Lack of retirement savings, unexpected medical bills and rising prices have put the elderly in precarious spots. Many are chronically homeless, having lived on the streets for over a year or experienced repeated stretches, all while struggling with mental illness, addiction or disability. Shelters and government services often times do not accommodate for the needs of elderly adults who are suffering from illness and frailty that can leave them vulnerable.
Some might ask, if California is getting too expensive, why not just move to another state?
Many, in fact, have little other choice. A 2018 report from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office found that over one million residents left the Golden State, between 2007 and 2016, in favor its cheaper neighbors like Nevada, Arizona and Texas.
Their results corroborated similar findings from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). While low income individuals are moving out, people with yearly earnings of more than $200,000 were moving in.
This leaves two distinct worlds within California: the wealthy and those struggling to survive, leaving a shrinking middle class caught in the middle. If Californians want to take a blunt look at the homeless crisis, these changing demographics have to be taken into account.
In spite of this dire portrait, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Strong social safety nets through local government programs like CALWORKS, CALFresh and SSI have helped to alleviate many out of homelessness and deep poverty. As non-profits continue to work directly in affected neighborhoods, Sacramento has approved state-wide rent control to ease the homeless crisis.
Yet, this is not just a bureaucratic problem. Many agree that solutions must be brought forth, though with a major caveat.
Low income housing, shelters and rehabilitation centers have often sounded alarm bells in people’s heads. They worry about the potential devaluing of their property, spikes in crime, disease and attracting more homeless to their impacted neighborhoods. “Not in my backyard,” is the broken record mantra that only makes one complicit.
To address the homeless crisis, California has to change. It is a symptom of a bigger, messier and more complex issue with multiple facets. More than just numbers and statistics, homelessness is an existential problem that the state has to address.
If California wants to continue to lead in progress and innovation, than it must be damn sure millions don’t get left behind.