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The pandemic has made homelessness more visible in many American cities

SEATTLE’S SKID ROAD has lived many lives. In the 1850s loggers “skidded” felled trees down the steep hill that led to the waterfront on Elliott Bay. Roughly 100 years later Murray Morgan, a local writer, described Skid Road as “a place of dead dreams”, where passersby would encounter “men sitting on curbs and sleeping in doorways”. Today’s Skid Road has further evolved. A homeless encampment has overtaken a park blocks away from where tourists peruse posh shops. A woman sits in her underwear on a milk crate. Tarps shelter those without tents.

Unsheltered homelessness—which includes people who live in cars, parks or abandoned buildings—has been rising for the past few years. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that some 226,000 Americans were living unsheltered in December 2020, up by 30% since 2015. Last year, rough sleepers accounted for about 39% of the country’s total homeless population, the highest proportion in a decade. Indeed, the 2% increase in America’s overall homeless population between 2019 and 2020 is due entirely to the growth of unsheltered homelessness.

The broader problem is about to get worse. A federal moratorium on evictions for those behind on their rent, a pandemic-relief measure in effect since March 2020, ended on July 31st. California and Washington state have moratoriums of their own, but these will protect renters only until the end of September. Many more people may become homeless.

Before the pandemic, tents could be reliably found in city centres up and down the west coast. Now encampments have cropped up in leafy neighbourhoods all around places such as Los Angeles, Port­land and Seattle. “It doesn’t matter where you are now,” says Jon Scholes, the president of the Downtown Seattle Association, “you see people who are visibly homeless.”

The seeming increase in encampments is hard to quantify. Because of the pandemic, HUD allowed communities to opt out of its yearly count of homeless people in January. In lieu of official data, Karen Snedker, a sociologist at Seattle Pacific University, conducted her own tent census in areas with the largest encampments and found 220 more tents in July 2020 compared with the last three months of 2019. True, more people tend to sleep outside in summer than winter. But Dr Snedker reckons the spike of about 50% was greater than normal seasonal change would suggest.

The visibility of encampments does not necessarily mean that overall homelessness increased during the pandemic. As the virus began to spread, many worried that shelters would act as incubators for covid-19. States and cities across the country moved people into hotels where they could safely quarantine. King County, which includes Seattle, saw reduced rates of covid-19 and higher exit rates to permanent housing after moving homeless people from shelters to hotels. A study published in JAMA, a medical journal, in March reported similar results for a hotel scheme in San Francisco, where the number of tents actually fell in the past year.

But there weren’t enough hotel rooms to house all of America’s homeless. Gregg Colburn, of the University of Washington, says the pandemic divided the country’s homeless into two groups: those who were able to take advantage of emergency programmes, and those who fell through the cracks when shelters shut down. It is hard to know whether the increase in the number of tents is a result of more people falling into homelessness, or previously sheltered people moving outside.

Three things conspired to keep tents where they cropped up. First, the pandemic: the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advised against breaking up encampments. It worried about dispersing people who might have caught covid-19.

Second, political paralysis: attitudes towards homeless “sweeps” (the forced break-up of encampments) have exposed the fault lines among liberals on the left coast. Leftists argue that sweeps can be traumatic for those in encampments, many of whom are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse. Moderates counter that allowing people to live outside helps no one, not least the people without homes. Increased wariness towards the police in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year led Seattle to disband its “Navigation Team”, which brought together police officers and outreach workers to break up encampments and refer their residents to shelters.

Third, legal limbo: the Ninth Circuit Court, which covers most western states, decided in 2018 that Boise, Idaho, could not criminalise sleeping outdoors on public property when shelter is not available. Cities around the region were left wondering whether they could still break up encampments. The parameters are murky. Sleeping may be allowed, but what about tents?

As America ponders a post-pandemic future, municipalities are mulling what to do about the camps. Thanks to federal stimulus funds and budget surpluses, policymakers are swimming in cash. California’s new budget for the 2021 fiscal year sets aside $12bn for homelessness programmes. Seattle will put more than a third of the $128m the city received from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan (the $1.9trn stimulus package passed in March) towards the problem.

But shelling out dough doesn’t guarantee success. California has spent more than $13bn over three years trying to reduce homelessness. Yet it still has half the country’s total unsheltered population. Some 70% of California’s 160,000 homeless people are sleeping rough.

In years past, says Jason Elliott, a senior adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom, California would “sort of write a check and hope good things happen”. But he argues that the financial rewards or cuts for local governments that meet—or fail to meet—their goals that are baked into the $12bn package are “the most accountability that’s ever been applied to homelessness funding in anyone’s lifetime in California”.

One of the arguments against generous benefits is the idea that poor or homeless people will move West to places where they can receive the most help. But in 2019, 70% of San Francisco’s homeless previously lived in the city, and all but 8% had lived in California. “People don’t move four states over because there are better services,” says Marc Dones, the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

The causes of homelessness can seem intractable, involving every societal ill from poverty and systemic racism to mental illness and drug abuse. Shelter alone is not a solution. Policy wonks fret that western metro areas will follow in the footsteps of New York City, which has more homeless people than any other city even though a right-to-shelter law means only 5% of them are sleeping rough.

The engine that drives the problem is the high cost of housing. In their forthcoming book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem”, Mr Colburn and Clayton Aldern compare the population-growth rates and housing-supply elasticity of several American cities (see chart). The cities most notorious for homelessness have absorbed an influx of people without building enough homes to house them. Fewer homes has led to lower vacancy rates and higher rents.

Increasing the amount of affordable housing involves re-zoning for high-density apartment buildings rather than-single family homes. A bureaucratic thicket and nimbyism make that tricky. Geography also complicates matters. Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are encircled by water and mountains. Constructing new homes in the West has increasingly meant building on forested and rural lands that constitute the “wildland-urban interface”, where there is greater risk of wildfires.

It is a rare moment when the resources, sense of urgency and political will to tackle homelessness on such a grand scale align. “My fear is just sort of throwing money up in the air,” Dr Snedker says of Seattle’s efforts. But “I’m hopeful that we can use this really dark moment to do something productive.”