Today’s Read: America’s Homeless Population Rises

The benefits of the economic recovery since the Great Recession have not been shared equally by all Americans. In fact, as housing costs in cities across the country have skyrocketed, increasingly low-income men, women, and children have been pushed into homelessness. Today, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its Annual Homeless Assessment Report, which estimated that 553,742 Americans were homeless on a single night in 2017 – the first annual increase since 2010, largely because of a surge in homelessness on the West Coast. Due to flawed methodology for the nationwide count, this figure is almost certainly an undercount. Nevertheless, the report is a sobering reminder of the persistence of homelessness across the United States.

The crisis is particularly acute in New York City, where the number of men, women, and children sleeping in homeless shelters each night hit a new record of 62,963 in October. New York’s right to shelter guarantees our homeless neighbors a safe, warm place to rest – unlike most other cities, where thousands of Americans have nowhere to turn but the streets. The heartbreaking scale of the problem demands that all levels of government fully commit to proven housing solutions to confront this American tragedy.

Notably, the new national homelessness figures were released just as Congress rushes to pass sweeping tax reform that will seriously jeopardize the production of the very affordable housing that homeless Americans so desperately need – with additional proposals to cut the social safety net expected in the coming months. At a time when low-income Americans need more supports, the Federal government is determined to move in the opposite direction.

Alastair Gee covered the HUD report for The Guardian:

Advocates who have witnessed the homelessness crisis unfold since it emerged in the early 1980s are grimly astonished by its persistence.

“I never in a million years thought that it would drag on for three decades with no end in sight,” said Bob Erlenbusch, who began working in Los Angeles in 1984.

In one sense the prevalence of homelessness seems odd, because the national poverty rate has fallen to around the same level as before the recession. Yet homelessness is linked to economic growth. In some of the nation’s more desirable major cities, housing is rapidly appreciating to a point where it is out of reach for lower earners.

Median hourly wages in the US have barely budged for decades, from $16.74 in 1973 to $17.86 in 2016, in terms of 2016 dollars, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But in New York, for instance, the hourly wage required to comfortably rent a one-bedroom is $27.29. In Los Angeles, it is $22.98.

Vacancy rates in these cities are low, and construction of new homes is lagging. The state of California estimates that 180,000 new housing units are needed each year in order to keep up with population growth. Over the last decade, however, there was an annual average of less than 80,000 units, because developers often face a long review process and local opposition.

Reflecting on the new count results, another longtime homeless expert, Washington DC social worker Julie Turner, spoke ruefully of her optimism of 30 years ago. Back then, homelessness in America seemed like it was only temporary.

“I thought that I was going to work myself out of a job.”