Homeless America

The United States is a land of stark contrasts but there are few places in the country where these are as apparent as in California. Whether it’s the sprawling tent cities right next to the newest, coolest start-up HQ in San Francisco or lush neighbourhoods morphing into blocks of shuttered businesses in Los Angeles, economic inequality is visible everywhere.

In the beginning of this series I wrote about the dangers and limitations of blind travel – travel with no awareness of social issues that constitute the day-to-day realities in places we visit on our journeys. Today I’m highlighting one such issue, an urgent and wicked problem that stares every California resident and visitor squarely in the face: homelessness.

A wicked problem in a wealthy state

California is the world’s 6th largest economy, surpassing such countries as France, India and Brazil, and closely trailing behind the United Kingdom. Consider that it’s not even a sovereign country, and just let that sink in for a minute.

Within California, the Bay Area boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world, largely thanks to the booming tech industry. Unfortunately, this economic success is not reaching – or enriching – everyone, and amid all the start ups run by rosy-cheeked millionaire wannabes a very different America exists.

San Francisco alone is home to nearly 7,000 homeless residents, and has been for several decades. It’s a little surreal, really. Walking the streets of San Francisco, or in towns like Oakland and Berkeley across the Bay, you pass dozens of brand new condos where rent can be as high as $5,000 (about £4,000) for a one-bedroom flat. Yet you also pass sidewalks lined with tents and make-shift shelters, a sight more reminiscent of asylum seeker camps in Greece than of wealthy California.

This problem is not exclusive to the Bay Area, either. Los Angeles County’s homeless population is now nearly 58,000 (roughly 0.6% of its total population), and the rise in homelessness far outpaces any measures taken to place people into housing. A recent report found that sanitation standards on L.A. streets, in particular access to toilets on Skid Row which in recent years has turned from a single street into an entire neighbourhood, are below those maintained in refugee camps by the UN Refugee Agency.

Here’s the thing to remember when comparing the homelessness problem to the refugee crisis though. People living on the streets on San Francisco and Los Angeles are not fleeing war, their own government is not trying to murder them, and they’re not hosted by some of the poorest countries.

They live in unsanitary, unsafe conditions on the streets of their home country, in one of the wealthiest places in the world.

Failure of social care

A couple of friends I spoke to, both long-time California residents, highlighted severe cuts to federal funding of affordable housing and mental health care as major drivers of homelessness, which are only exacerbated by an ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor spurred by the dizzying economic growth.

In our conversations one particular issue stood out to me. Much of the U.S. population seem awfully averse to investment in the public sphere, be it critical infrastructure or social services like healthcare, education, social care, and so forth. It’s not that people completely don’t care about the homeless on their streets. It’s that they don’t seem to want to dish out money to solve the homelessness crisis. How else do you explain San Francisco residents voting for earmarking $50 million a year for homeless programmes in the city but voting against a 0.75% sales tax increase to fund this initiative?

Taxation is a dirty word in American English. Households don’t want to be taxed, businesses don’t want to be taxed but everyone wants the homelessness problem to go away. As a result, the social safety net that many of us enjoy and often take for granted in western Europe is practically absent in the United States. And, as a result, you have a chronic homelessness crisis so sever that it pushes governments to consider declaring state of emergency to tackle it.

Fight against homelessness

Homelessness is awful, heartbreaking. No human deserves a homeless existence. The good news is that work continues on innovative solutions to help people out of homelessness.

There is an obscure federal law called Title V that transfers disused federal property and land to homeless service providers. A bill passed in December 2016 eases the way for local governments and non-governmental organisations to take advantage of this law.

A project initially developed by architecture students at University of Southern California envisions an innovative design for “cheap, easily-duplicated, pod-based” housing for Skid Row residents.

And an all-girl engineering team of high school students from San Fernando invented a solar-powered tent for the homeless with funding from a prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) grant.

The bottom line is, homelessness is solvable given the right ideas and resources. Society-wide problems like homelessness can be tackled only with the input – including financial input – from all members of society. All it takes is a little bit of basic human empathy.

Further reading

If you want to learn more about the issue of homelessness, here’s where you can start:

This NYT Op-Ed by Daniel Duane offers a good overview of the complex issue of chronic homelessness and its historical roots in the Bay Area.

SF Homeless Project is a collaboration of 80+ media organisations dedicated to shining light on the lives of people who struggle with homelessness in the Bay Area, and covers the causes of and solutions to homelessness across multiple websites.

And if you’re wondering how you can contribute to tackling homelessness here in the UK, check out these charities working to provide dignified and safe existence to the homeless:

Do you know of any great initiatives that are working to end homelessness in the UK or the United States? Leave a comment below! Shining the light on important and innovative social solutions keeps the dialogue going and brings a more just and equal society closer to our reach.

Thanks for reading rouge & coffee 

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