The homeless crisis has been growing across the United States. The runup in housing costs has exacerbated a problem that has been around for years. It appears especially pronounced in high-cost cities with good weather. That raises an important question: what part does favorable weather play in homelessness? Or perhaps people who live in colder areas seek out shelter when it’s too cold to be outdoors. It has long been assumed the homeless seek out warmer climates but that assumes they have the time and resources to do so.
A recent study commissioned by the California Department of Health and Human Services found that about 172,000 people are homeless in the state, accounting for nearly one-third (30%) of the total homeless population in the nation. Moreover, the idea that homeless people flock to California was dispelled by the study. It found that roughly 90% of the homeless in California were living there prior to becoming homeless. Housing advocates worry the homeless are undercounted because it doesn’t necessarily measure those who sleep in their cars or couch surf from one friend’s couch to the next. It presumably does not include the plethora of people living in old recreational vehicles parked alongside streets or roads. Advocates say those living in RVs do not consider themselves homeless, although living in a derelict camper on public property blurs the lines between homelessness and marginal housing.
Is homelessness the result of chronic disease, mental illness, an alternative lifestyle, a lack of affordable housing or a byproduct of all the above? These are important questions since the answer affects any solution to the problem. According to the California study:
California’s homelessness crisis is a homegrown problem that is deepening amid a shortage of affordable housing and emergency shelter, and it’s often the brutal conditions of living on the street that trigger behavioral health problems, such as depression and anxiety, researchers found in a comprehensive study on homelessness.
The paragraph above makes a lot of assumptions. Did homelessness lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety? Or was depression and anxiety already present and possibly led to homelessness? It’s like the debate about whether the chicken or the egg came first.
A staggering 82% of people experiencing homelessness said they had a mental health condition or substance use challenge in their lifetime. And 66% said they were currently experiencing mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, hallucinations, or trouble remembering things.
Kushel said the findings point to the increasing demands for adequate mental health and addiction treatment — and more low-income housing. While some people reported heightened mental health and substance use problems before becoming homeless, the trauma of being on the streets, Kushel said, can lead to, or amplify, behavioral health conditions, including drug use and depression.
I wonder if the subjects being interviewed were totally honest with the social workers surveying them. Saying they got depressed and started using drugs after becoming homeless is a far different pathology than saying they got depressed, used drugs and that led to homelessness. The findings are counterintuitive:
Specifically, 83% of homeless people surveyed said they had health insurance mostly through Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program for low-income people. Yet more than half relied on the emergency room for care and nearly a quarter said they couldn’t access the care they needed. A majority who said they were experiencing mental health problems either weren’t being treated or got care through emergency rooms.
Where did the homeless come from and what was their last source of housing?
Roughly 1 in 5 became homeless after leaving an institution such as jail.
Before experiencing homelessness, 32% had a mortgage or rental lease agreement; roughly 50% did not.
The previous residence of the homeless raises more questions than it answers. More than two-thirds weren’t protected by an official agreement or contract where they lived. Roughly 20 percentage points of those had been incarcerated. That leave about half whose former whereabouts were unofficial, and likely precarious at the time. The study noted the homeless population includes people middle-aged and above. Nearly half were age 50 or older. Those surveyed had been homeless for a median length of just under two years (22 months) and in the prior six months before becoming homeless had a median income of slightly less than $1,000 a month.
California’s experience illustrates how intractable the homeless problem is. The state has spent $20 billion on the homeless crisis since 2019, which has only gotten worse. Simple math suggests California spent more than $2,000 a month on each homeless individual since 2019, which should be enough to house an individual ($20 billion / 172,000 people / 54 months = $2,153.32 per month).
One could argue that a ruling by the liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise also plays a role in increasing homelessness by making the condition easier.
[T]he Ninth Circuit Court ruling that people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no available alternatives. The Supreme Court’s decision makes the Ninth Circuit Court ruling binding for states in the Court’s jurisdiction: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. It also sets an influential national precedent.
The homeless population likely has many causes. Thus, it doesn’t have only one solution. Drug addiction, mental health deficits, fair weather, political tolerance and the high cost of housing all play a role in homelessness.