The wealthiest nation in the world, ours, has about 600,000 people who are homeless and living — or existing — on the streets. About 1.5 million people are temporarily without housing and seek shelter in public or private facilities each year. The problem is becoming more intense. It is a problem that local communities must address but one that requires a national solution.
New homelessness is being driven by low wages and high housing prices. Here is an example of what is happening in America. In the years since the economic recession that started in 2008, California’s Los Angeles County lost 89,000 manufacturing jobs that paid an average of $70,000 per year. During those same years, they gained 92,000 jobs that provide an average annual income of $20,000 per year — not enough income to survive in many places in the United States. Worse, Los Angeles County also gained thousands of “in-home support” jobs that pay an average annual income of only $14,000 per year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment is now only about 4 percent, the lowest in ten years, but that doesn’t mean much if the pay for many employed people is too low to afford the necessities of life.
New business starts are a source of additional jobs. But according to the Economic Innovation Group, half of those recent job creations were in only five cities: Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York.
Most of our housing, whether individual family houses or apartment buildings, is built by private investors for profit. They do not flood the market with housing because that would lower their profits. Our population is steadily increasing causing greater demand and higher prices for existing housing. During the past few decades people have been moving to cities and that has increased the price of housing in urban areas.
When people lose their job and their housing, they become unwanted, undesirable, and quite a lot of cities have invoked ordinances restricting the presence of homeless people except where courts have held that constitutional protections cannot be denied simply because a person is deemed undesirable or whose appearance makes us feel uneasy. According to the National Law Center, some cities have made the following things illegal for homeless people.
Living in an automobiles: 39 percent of U.S. cities
Living in a tent (camping): 33 percent of U.S. cities; 50 percent limit tents in parts of the city
Sleeping in public: 18 percent of cities prohibit sleeping in a public place
Loitering: 32 percent of cities have anti-loitering ordinances; 54 percent in select areas of the city
Sitting or lying down in a public place: 47 percent of cities prohibit
Giving food: 6 percent of U.S. cities prohibit giving food to homeless people
Begging: 27 percent of cities prohibit; 61 percent in particular places in the city
There are other factors that contribute to homelessness including mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, rejection of children who don’t meet the standards their parents expect (e.g., sexual orientation), and children released from foster care. When children are released from foster care at the specified age, e.g., 18, they enter a chaotic world without family, friends, or transition assistance and too often become homeless.
Charities, non-profits organizations, and governments do provide some shelter and other assistance for homeless people, but not enough to solve the problem. Cities task their police forces to arrest homeless people, destroy their encampments, or order them to move on to another place. In a bygone era, the French and British sentenced people to “transportation.” The British transported their undesirables to Australia. The French sent theirs to Devils Island. Today, in America, some cities buy homeless people a bus ticket to another city with instructions to never return. That doesn’t solve the problem, but it does remind us that a national solution is required.
A considerable number of informed people foresee substantial job losses to software and automation. Many new jobs that do become available in the future will likely require advanced education. America is going to need social safety nets.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.