"The housing crisis is insane": 6 cities where homelessness is out of control

Seven years after the Great Recession, 565,000 are living on the streets -- as many as a quarter of them children

Published November 28, 2015 3:00PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetIn the early 2000s, cities around the country pledged to end homelessness within a decade, drafting ambitious 10-year plans to get all  of their homeless people into stable, permanent housing. One Great Recession later and the number of homeless people stands at 565,000, a quarter of them children, according to data released Thursday (and that's a huge underestimate since the count is based on visibly homeless people and misses, say, anyone who happens to be couch-crashing at the time).

There have been some success stories. Homelessness among veterans dropped 33 percent between 2010 and 2014, and Salt Lake City shrunk its homeless population by 72 percent in nine years, just by giving homeless people apartments, Mother Jones reported. But in many American cities homelessness is spiraling out of control and no one in charge seems to know what to do about it.

Rising rents and stagnant wages have led to the unsurprising outcome that many poor people can't afford rent and end up in shelters, cars, on the street, or doubled up. In New York City, that includes a large population of homeless families with children, many of them crowded into filthy city shelters. In many cities, officials face the eternal dilemma of NIMBYism; how to help homeless people who have nowhere to go while mollifying residents and business owners who want them anywhere besides where they live or have their businesses.

Here are six cities struggling with a massive homelessness problem and what they are—or are not—doing about it.

1. New York City

More than 59,000 people are sleeping in New York City homeless shelters, 40 percent of them children. Eighty-four thousand school-aged kids are in a shelter, living doubled up with family or friends, or living outside. Families in shelters are taking longer to move into permanent housing and street homelessness appears to be on the rise; all bad signs for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rode into office pledging to rein in inequality.

The irony has not been lost on conservative media, which has berated the mayor nonstop for the apparent rise in street homelessness, while publicly shaming the homeless for good measure. The New York Post dispatched 16 reporters to take pictures of just one homeless man, which they put on their cover, as Gawker reported. "The O'Reilly Factor's" Jesse Waters went to Penn Station to interrogate homeless people about their drinking and drug use. And Police Commissioner William Bratton had to go on Morning Joe to calm Joe Scarborough, who fretted that the NYPD wasn't sufficiently abusing its powers by forcing people into shelters. With evident glee, former GOP mayor Rudy Giuliani taunted de Blasio for letting "progressivism" prevent police from clearing homeless people from the street. Even as the mayor caught flak from conservatives for not disappearing the homeless through excessive police force, some homelessness advocates have knocked the NYPD for clearing out encampments.

What gets less coverage is the huge increases in homelessness under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who started, but then dropped, a series of rental subsidies, burdening poor families with rents they couldn't afford. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of people in shelters rose from 37,000 to 53,000 (New York is legally required to provide shelter).

Since the start of his administration, Mayor de Blasio has pledged $22 million to mental health care programs, launched a rental subsidy called Living in Communities (LINC) and devoted more funding to legal services for tenants fighting eviction. But the mayor's reforms might not be enough, given that rent eats up 70 percent of poor New Yorkers' incomes (New York's minimum wage is $8.75). LINC vouchers have helped people move into permanent housing, but a recent report showed that 80 percent of distributed vouchers aren't being used. That means that even with a voucher, homeless people can't find apartments, so they stay in shelters. One shelter resident told DNA Info she'd tried 30 landlords who wouldn't touch the voucher. “People don’t want to deal with a LINC voucher because they feel that it’s unreliable,” she told the site.

Part of the reason landlords are wary of LINC is that the city can't promise the program will continue indefinitely. The Independent Budget Office has warned that the administration has overly rosy expectations for LINC, since funding for the program relies on reduced shelter costs, and shelter costs aren't being reduced because not enough people are leaving shelter.

Homelessness advocates have lobbied the mayor and the governor to build 35,000 supportive housing units, apartments where people can get access to social services like mental health care or substance abuse treatment. The mayor initially called for 12,000 units to be built over 10 years. That plan floundered when Governor Cuomo shot back with an offer of 4,000 units (the city and state have traditionally partnered to fund supportive housing under an agreement called NY/NY, but thanks to their now legendary feud,they've failed to reach an agreement). On Wednesday, de Blasio called out Cuomo for failing to step up, and announced that the city would build 15,000 new units of supportive housing over 15 years.

"I would say that's good news, but it's one part of the puzzle," Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of the Institute For Children, Poverty & Homelessness, tells AlterNet about the mayor's new plan. "Now, we're doing 15,000 units of supportive housing, but it's all spread over long periods. So what do we do with the rest of the homeless people in the meantime?"

Meanwhile, the mayor also plans to build 80,000 units of affordable housing over 19 years, but they're not necessarily affordable for the poor families in danger of homelessness.

"He's got good intentions, but the nature of the market won't allow it,"  da Costa Nunez says. "You can create some affordable housing, but what does affordable even mean? Some of those rents require people making $50,000. These families don't make $50,000."

2. San Francisco, Bay Area

On November 2, housing activists charged the officers of Airbnb in San Francisco, bearing paper houses with a clear message about the house-sharing company's contributions to the city, reported SF Weekly.

  • Evictions. Love, AirBnB
  • Homelessness. Love, AirBnB

The protest preceded a vote on Proposition F, a measure that would have placed restrictions on house-sharing, like limiting the number of days units could be rented out (the measure was defeated). Airbnb argued that its service helps middle-class families keep up with their own rising rents and that the company is being scapegoated for the city's lack of affordable housing. Critics say the model has worsened the city's housing crisis by taking so many rental units off the market.

The controversy over the home-sharing service perfectly encapsulates San Francisco's housing crisis, driven by a tech boom that has fueled development, flooded the city with highly paid young professionals and displaced long-time residents.

The city's increasing unaffordability (and the increasing unaffordability of surrounding areas) has exacerbated the homelessness problem in a number of ways.

For decades, San Francisco has had a large population of homeless people on its streets. At last count in January 2015, there were 6,686 homeless people in the city, 3,505 of them without shelter. But in the past five years, there's also been a large rise in homeless families with children. More than 2,000 homeless kids are enrolled in the San Francisco School District.

"The housing crisis is insane," says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. "We meet people all the time that got evicted out of their homes. People don't have anywhere to go."

In the past, homeless people could get temporary shelter in SROs or by sharing rooms, but those spaces are being converted to expensive apartments, Friedenbach says. Meanwhile, the city's population of chronically homeless people is getting older and sicker and requires more care, according to a recent report.

Friedenbach points out that since many newcomers aren't used to seeing homeless people, complaints to police have gone up, leading to increased criminalization. Despite its (dwindling) reputation as a bastion of progressive values, San Franciso leads the state in the number of laws targeting the homeless, including measures that ban standing or sitting in public, and laws that restrict lodging in cars and panhandling. According to the report, these laws are heavily enforced, with police issuing a yearly average of 3,200 citations for anti-homeless laws. While police can't arrest people for their first infraction, a single citation can lead to unpaid fines, a bench warrant and eventual arrest, which can further destabilize homeless people's lives.

3. Portland, Oregon

Thanks to its somewhat less barbaric treatment of homeless people than is the norm in many U.S. cities, Portland attracts people in need from around the country. The city has many social services and its police force is less keen on cracking down on the homeless as authorities in cities that have embraced broken-windows policies.

What the city lacks is space—shelter space to temporarily put up people in need and permanent housing in which to transition people out of shelter. There are 3,800 homeless people in the city, 1,887 of them lacking shelter, including children.

The city's skyrocketing rents and low vacancy rates (around 3 percent) haven't helped. Just between 2014 and 2015 rents jumped by 15 percent, even as many Oregonians' wages have not recovered from the recession. Between 2009 and 2014 low-wage workers in the state saw their wages drop by 5 percent when adjusted for inflation.

"For decades we've had a housing problem, for decades we've had a homelessness problem. But the change in the last year is really a whole different picture," Martha McLennan, executive director of Northwest Housing Alternatives, tells AlterNet. The organization operates low-income housing as well as homeless shelters, and McLennan notes that even when families get a housing voucher, many have to give them back because they can't find apartments. Meanwhile, they end up turning away nine families out of every one that tries to apply to their homeless shelter.

The city's homelessness problem led Portland Mayor Charlie Hales to announce a state of emergency in September. The order will allow the city to circumvent zoning laws to quickly build new shelters, and provide shelter to vets and women by the end of the year, the AP reported. In the meantime, unsheltered homeless people in the city are building increasingly large encampments, and there's pressure on the city to avoid enforcing anti-camping ordinances that technically make so-called tent cities illegal, according to the Oregonian.

"I know the general public doesn't want to hear it," Israel Bayer, an advocate for homeless Portlanders and executive director of Street Roots, told the Oregonian. "No, it's not popular. No, it's not an answer. But at some point, the gap between places to sleep and people needing them is too great. We're overwhelmed."

4. Seattle 

At last count, Seattle's homeless population was 10,047, 3,772 of them unsheltered; not great for a city that pledged to solve homelessness in 10 years, exactly 10 years ago. Seattle was one of the many cities that in 2005 signed the pledge to end homelessness. Thanks to the recession and the city's hugely inflated rental market, officials have resorted to government-sponsored tent cities.

In October, Mayor Ed Murray announced the opening of three large, city-sanctioned encampments to be run by service providers. The mayor noted the urgency of the problem: "We've spent a year trying to get these encampments up and running," Murray said according to mynorthwest.com. "During that time, over 30 homeless people have died in this city. This would never be my first choice, but we've got to do something, and something quick."

The first two opened this week. They'll hold 50 and 80 people.

Dubbed Murrayvilles, the Depression-era throwbacks sit in a city flush with tech cash. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google all have operations in the area. In an echo of San Francisco, the tech companies have flooded the city with young tech professionals who have driven up the cost of living, particularly rent. Between 2010 and 2013, average rents in the city jumped by 11 percent, the biggest increase among 50 biggest American cities between 2010 and 2013, according toNext City.

"Seattle is becoming an unaffordable city for a lot of people," Rex Hohlbein, executive director of Facing Homelessness, tells AlterNet. "Some people leave the city, and some end up homeless."

The increase in homeless people living on the street or in cars and RVs has led to predictable tensions with neighborhood residents, who might call the police on someone, say, camped out in a car without realizing the ramifications. "If police just ticket, tow, impound the vehicle, that person will be sleeping under a bridge," Hohlbein notes.

"You're spiraling them further into crisis by harassing them to move," he says. Although he understands why some people might feel uncomfortable having more homeless people around, he notes that this discomfort arises from fear that is not reflective of real danger. "Most homeless people don't have time to fuck with you, they're trying to figure it out to try to survive." he points out.

He hopes the city-encampments will allow opportunities for more understanding.

Seattle's mayor also declared a state of emergency, devoting $5.3 million to preventing and reducing homelessness.

5. Honolulu

The combination of mild weather and high housing costs have made homelessness rates in Hawaii explode; Honolulu alone has seen a 32 percent jump in homelessness in five years, the NYT reported.

Hawaii's reliance on tourism has led lawmakers to desperate measures that are almost awe-inspiring in their unconstitutionality. Last year, Oahu city board members suggested shipping the city's homeless to a remote island, like literal lepers. A few years ago, one Honolulu politician gained notoriety for smashing homeless people's belongings with a sledgehammer.

Lawmakers have also passed laws restricting homeless people's public activities, like a ban on sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk during the day in Honolulu. Other municipalities enforce anti-camping ordinances to prevent people from sleeping in the parks at night.

In the past few years, encampments with hundreds of people have formed, and then been busted up by authorities.

Honolulu's mayor and Hawaii's governor have called measures targeting the homeless "compassionate disruption," meant to move people off the street and into shelters. But advocates for the homeless and peeved business owners counter that when police break up an encampment, residents just go elsewhere, since they don't have an abundance of attractive options.

On October 16, Hawaii governor David Inge declared a "state of emergency" for homelessness in the state. The emergency order mandates the construction of a family shelter and $1.3 million for programs that would settle homeless people into permanent housing and also help families facing eviction.

A few days before the announcement, municipal workers performed sweeps of an encampment of almost 300 people, including families, according to Honolulu's Civil Beat. It appears many relocated to other parts of the city.

Previous sweeps have prompted ACLU lawsuits on behalf of homeless people whose belongings were trashed; one of the plaintiffs claimed she'd been displaced by the city seven or eight times and each time, important belongings like medication were thrown away. Unsurprisingly, retrieving their things is a bureaucratic nightmare, as the Civil Beat reported.

6. Los Angeles

Los Angeles has one of the most stubborn homelessness problems in the country. Traditionally, its most visible manifestation has been Skid Row, a giant encampment that survived even the formidable over-policing powers of Commissioner William Bratton, who targeted the area with an aggressive police task force when he was LA police chief.

But the city's homelessness crisis is now citywide. The Los Angeles Times broke down the distressing numbers: homelessness has jumped by 12 percent in two years, to 44,350 in Los Angeles County. In that time, the number of people living in tents and cars exploded by 85%. The Times points to the usual suspects behind the soaring rates of homelessness: gentrification of parts of the city, like Venice Beach, that have historically been affordable for the poor; high rent, low wages and high rates of unemployment. There's also a large population of working poor who cycle in and out of homelessness. "About 13,000 people on public assistance tumble into homelessness every month in Los Angeles County," theTimes noted.

Los Angeles' huge unsheltered population presents a host of municipal nightmares. For one, officials are worried that people sleeping in storm drains risk drowning during the upcoming rainy season, the AP reported. On Tuesday, city officials announced that public buildings would be converted into temporary shelters for the winter and loosened restrictions on sleeping in cars. Although it was widely reported in September that the Mayor had officially declared a state of emergency, it turns out it's more complicated: the council introduced a motion to declare a state of emergency, and at Tuesday's vote they had not yet greenlit the official emergency order.

TheTimes editorial board excoriated the city's failure to act on the emergency order, noting, "This whole process has been more of a turgid civics debate than an urgent response to a desperate situation. Homelessness is one of the most intractable problems facing the city of Los Angeles. But the supposed state of emergency proclaimed almost two months ago is looking increasingly like a farce and a waste of time."

By Tana Ganeva

MORE FROM Tana Ganeva

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