West Coast grapples with surge in homelessness

November 8, 2017

 

Homelessness is not a new issue to America's West Coast. But it's getting worse - much worse.


On any given night, more than 105,000 people are sleeping unsheltered in some of the country's biggest and trendiest metropolises, driven there by soaring housing costs, rental vacancy rates that rival those in Manhattan and a booming tech economy that's leaving thousands behind. Another 63,000 are sleeping in shelters or transitional housing with no safety net.


The rising numbers have pushed abject poverty into the open like never before.


San Diego now scrubs its sidewalks with bleach to counter a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that has spread to other cities and forced California to declare a state of emergency. In Anaheim, home to Disneyland, 400 people sleep along a bike path in the shadow of Angel Stadium. Organizers in Portland, Oregon, lit incense at a recent outdoor food festival to mask the stench of urine in a parking lot where vendors set up shop.


All along the coast, elected officials are scrambling for solutions.


"It's a sea of humanity crashing against services, and services at this point are overwhelmed, literally overwhelmed," said Jeremy Lemoine, who works for a Seattle nonprofit that provides various forms of assistance to the homeless. "It's catastrophic."

 

People who were once able to get by, even if they suffered a setback, are now pushed to the streets because housing has become so expensive. All it takes is a prolonged illness, a lost job, a broken limb, a family crisis. What was once a blip in fortunes now seems a life sentence.

 

"Most homeless people I know aren't homeless because they're addicts," said Tammy Stephen, 54, who lives at a homeless encampment in Seattle. "Most people are homeless because they can't afford a place to live."

 

Among the AP's findings:

 

  • Official counts taken earlier this year in California, Oregon and Washington show 168,000 homeless people in the three states, according to an AP tally of every jurisdiction in those states that reports homeless numbers to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That is 19,000 more than were counted two years ago, although the numbers may not be directly comparable because of factors ranging from the weather to new counting methods.

  • During the same period, the number of unsheltered people in the three states — defined as someone sleeping outside, in a bus or train station, abandoned building or vehicle — has climbed 18 percent to 105,000.

  • Rising rents are the main culprit. The median one-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area is significantly more expensive than it is in the New York City metro area, and apartments in San Francisco are listed at a higher price than those in Manhattan.

  • Since 2015, at least 10 cities or municipal regions in California, Oregon and Washington — and Honolulu, as well — have declared states of emergency due to the rise of homelessness, a designation usually reserved for natural disasters.


"What do we want as a city to look like? That's what the citizens here need to decide," said Gordon Walker, head of the regional task force for the homeless in San Diego, where the unsheltered homeless population has spiked by 18 percent in the past year. "What are we going to allow? Are we willing to have people die on the streets?"

 

A new study funded by the real estate information firm Zillow and conducted by the University of Washington found a strong link between rising housing prices and rising homelessness numbers. A 5 percent rent increase in Los Angeles, for example, would mean about 2,000 more homeless people there, the authors said.

 

Nationally, homelessness has been trending down, partly because governments and nonprofit groups have gotten better at moving people into housing. That's true in many West Coast cities, too, but the flow the other direction is even faster. And on the West Coast, shelter systems are smaller.

 

"If you have a disability income, you make about $9,000 a year and renting a studio in Seattle is about $1,800 a month and so that's twice your income," said Margaret King, director of housing programs for DESC, a nonprofit that works with Seattle's homeless.

 

"So everybody who was just hanging on because they had cheap rent, they're losing that ... and they wind up outside. It's just exploded."

 

In San Jose, officials recently approved an ordinance pushed by an interfaith group called the Winter Faith Collaborative to allow places of assembly - including gyms and churches - to shelter homeless people year-round.


Ellen Tara James-Penney, a 54-year-old lecturer at San Jose State University, parks her old Volvo at one of those safe haven churches, Grace Baptist Church, and eats in its dining hall. She is paid $28,000 a year to teach four English classes and is carrying $143,000 in student debt after earning two degrees.


She grades papers and prepares lessons in the Volvo. At night, she leans back the driver's seat and prepares for sleep, one of two dogs, Hank, by her side. Her husband, Jim, who is too tall for the car, sleeps outside in a tent cot with their other dog, Buddy.


The Bay Area native remembers the time a class was studying John Steinbeck, when another student said that she was sick of hearing about the homeless.


"And I said, 'Watch your mouth. You're looking at one.' Then you could have heard a pin drop," she said. "It's quite easy to judge when you have a house to live in or you have meds when you're depressed and health care."
 

 

Follow AP's complete coverage of the homeless crisis here: https://apnews.com/tag/HomelessCrisis

 

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