homeless people in california

Image: Tom Fisk


The richest state in the richest nation has more than a quarter of the nation's homeless

Tough face and gray mustache. Would she be 60, 65 years old? Perhaps. During the day she works in a warehouse, loading and unloading foodstuffs. Sometimes at night. Other times, during the day.

At the moment, he drives on the roads of Los Angeles. When the warehouse hours are at night, he works as a driver for the Uber app during the day. And the opposite, when the time is daytime. Twelve hours a day is enough for a modest life. He has legal residence in the United States. He can travel from time to time. He just got back from Mexico. He leaves Los Angeles in his car and drives to the Tijuana border: three and a half hours. Cross the border on foot directly to the Tijuana airport, and take a plane to Oaxaca. He's from there.

Then it will resume the route. You will get into your car and drive back to Los Angeles. He has lived here for over 20 years. With his wife and children. I think his father also came to the United States. “They don't want to work. The government gives them everything, they prefer to live like this”. He talks about the homeless people we saw along the way. I don't know if he's convinced of that, or if he's saying what he thinks we want to hear. I hear him speak and I'm in doubt. He contrasts his hard life with another, which seems more comfortable to him. Or less honest.

Sitting watching the world go by

There are no traffic jams on the road, but the traffic is slow. The path is dotted with homeless tents. Under an overpass, in a small space on the side of the road, close to the city center, here and there.

On a scarlet sofa, next to the small tent, motionless, unhurried, probably without commitments, without a meeting scheduled for the day, seated, he observes the turmoil of those passing by, with more or less haste, in a torrent that resembles an anthill. What would you be thinking? The slightly gray haired, overweight man just watches, leaning back on his sofa by the side of the road. He is homeless.

Half a million Americans are classified as "homeless". Someone is considered to be so provided he does not have a fixed, regular and suitable place to spend the night, in accordance with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It's the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As of January 2018, 552.830 people in the United States were considered homeless (homeless) by the Department. Of these, around 195.000 (35%) lived on the streets. Just over 358.000 (65%) had some kind of shelter, in temporary residences. The homeless then represented 0,2% of the US population; 17 people per 100.000 inhabitants. Two years later, in January 2020, 580.466 people entered this category, according to the 2021 edition of the State of Homeless.

Most (70%) are single people. The rest are families with children. “They live in every state and territory and reflect the diversity of our country,” the report says. “Between 2019 and 2020, homelessness increased by two percent nationwide.” This is the fourth biggest increase on record, reversing a downtrend that lasted eight or nine years. This was before the Covid-19 pandemic. “This report”, reads in the document, “does not reflect the changes that may have occurred as a result of the measures adopted to curb Covid-19, nor the increase in the unemployment rate resulting from the pandemic and the recession”. Unemployment and widespread eviction of those left without funds to pay rent "may have reduced or completely eliminated the achievements of those working to end homelessness."

I shouldn't be alive

On July 13, Jaime Lowe published a long story about homelessness in Los Angeles in the magazine The New York Times. The Doctor. Coley King, a 52-year-old doctor with a mustache and long hair, is the central character of the story.

It runs through the streets of Venice Beach, about four kilometers south of Santa Monica, an hour from downtown Los Angeles. He pulls his van up beside the Third Avenue campground, "where about 30 people live." John Simpson enters a tattered two-person tent. He is 64 years old. he has been a homeless, a homeless person, for life. His family kicked him out of the house for his alcoholism. “I shouldn't be alive,” he says.

The Doctor. King asks him if he needs medical attention. Simpson tells him that she had been drinking all morning. “Is this right?” he asked. “I don't care,” replies King. “Do you want me to examine you, do you want to sign up as my patient?” Simpson is hesitant but accepts. And as they draw his blood, he regrets wasting his time. “I shouldn't be alive,” he says.

The norm for me is losing three patients a month, says Dr. King. And he cites three cases: one died of a fentanyl overdose; another died of cancer, compounded by his drug addiction; a third died of alcoholism and terminal lung disease. A former patient died of cardiovascular disease. doctor King wears a pin with his image and a caption: “In loving memory”. He died aged 56, "very close to the average age at which permanent homeless people die".

The homeless have formed dozens of camps in Venice. Many of them, says Lowe in his report, are next to homes worth a few million dollars (seven or eight figures, he says), many of them belonging to employees of companies in what is now known as Silicon Beach, a mockery of the well-known Silicon Valley, the area in San Francisco Bay that is home to some of the great technology and social media transnationals: Apple, Facebook or Google. “Google, YouTube, Hulu and Snapchat all have offices within five miles of Venice,” says Lowe.

A neighborhood that has become a key issue in defining how Los Angeles will face the challenge of homeless. “Some residents want to relocate the homeless camps south of the Los Angeles airport, seven miles away; others insist that the solution must be found in Venice”.

Those who want to evict them cite, among other reasons, violence, faeces, bicycle theft. They walk around with signs: “Venice Beach! Where human poo and needles are part of the fun.” “We don't have enough control over the most important factors in solving homelessness,” said then-Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (now appointed US Ambassador to India by President Joe Biden). In Venice it is “especially brutal to see the inhumanity of the situation. In the city, and certainly on the waterfront, the situation is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. Over the past 12 years, the budget dedicated to the problem has gone from ten million dollars to one billion.

Los Angeles, says Lowe, will now face another wave of evictions when the state moratorium that suspended evictions expires in September. A $5,2 billion plan proposed by Gov. Gavin Newson to tackle the problem "will do some good," Lowe said, "but it may not be enough." Many of those who qualify for such help could be evicted long before they receive it, "which would mean a significant increase in the homeless population."

The end of the moratorium is also a matter of concern in Massachusetts, where the Boston Globe published an editorial on August 2 indicating that “those who live on the edge of poverty, struggling and often unable to pay rent, face an unequal battle to keep a roof over their heads”. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Thousands have lost their jobs and may also lose their homes, adds the paper.

After a recess, the courts resumed their work, with the moratorium on evictions coming to an end. Rent help programs work poorly. Less than half of applicants (only 48%) have their demands met. It's an uneven fight. In the more than 20 eviction actions filed since last January, around 93% of tenants were not represented by lawyers, a situation that only affected 15% of landlords.

Mental health and street life

One of the debates on the subject concerns the relationship between mental health and life on the streets. Studies show that one in five people living on the streets have mental health problems. The ratio increases from 1 to 3 among the homeless permanent. Stress, anxiety, isolation, difficulty sleeping increase physical and mental problems. In any case, it should not be forgotten that most people affected by mental problems do not live on the streets.

The relationship between the two problems became clear in 1963, when President John Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act. The idea was to build 1.500 facilities to treat people with mental health problems in their own communities. It seemed like a good idea, but many public hospitals closed and patients were forced to move to communities that did not have the resources, or capacity, to care for them. Today, says Heidi Schultheis, an analyst at Center for American Progress, in a study on the subject, the legacy of this policy, called “deinstitutionalization”, is that the homeless and people with mental problems “are over-criminalized and over-incarcerated, with prisons serving as the largest providers of psychiatric care from the country".

In his opinion, the key to ending this situation for virtually all affected populations is to ensure them permanent housing at a reasonable cost. About five million homeowners, including four million children, depend on federal assistance programs to get a home, and despite growing demand, only one in four people in need receive help.

With rising rents, stagnant wages and a reduction in the public supply of subsidized housing and projects, it has become very difficult to find housing at a price they can afford. Schultheis claims that during the government of President Donald Trump and his secretary of housing and urban development, Ben Carson, supported by Republican congressmen, assistance programs were left without funds, the Affordable care (ACA) and the financing of the health care program was cut, Medicaid. In doing so, he added, "they put at great risk the health and well-being of people with mental health problems, the homeless and, especially, people who found themselves in both situations".

The richest state in the richest nation

More than a quarter of the homeless in the United States live in California. In February of last year, Governor Newson devoted his entire state of the state address to the homelessness crisis. “It is a tragedy that the richest state in the richest nation – so successful in many ways – is unable to adequately house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” said Newson.

Then came the pandemic and the governor announced an investment of 12 billion dollars – the largest among all states in the country – to face the problem. And it doesn't seem to be enough either. In reality, the problem involves structural causes that go beyond the amount of resources.

Those who despise homeless insist they pose a risk to public health. In early July, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial against a city council decision to remove the city's encampments. The measure was presented as an effort to give citizens back access to public spaces. Opponents criticized it, saying it was intended to criminalize the homeless. The appeals courts said it would not be possible to make sleeping on the streets a crime unless an alternative place to spend the night was secured.

 Newson faces a recall consultation, convened for Sept. 14, with support from critics of his policy of closing schools and businesses to deal with the pandemic. A vote that will be closely monitored, as it will serve as a barometer for next year's parliamentary elections. With Biden's support in decline, according to several polls released last week, mainly due to his handling of the pandemic, Democrats are in danger of losing their narrow majority in the House of Representatives.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


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