Regardless of how you voted or will vote on Proposition 10 (the “rent control” initiative), I think that we can agree that homelessness is a growing social problem locally and statewide. And one cause is the cost of housing, and hence the price of rent. But, that’s only part of the story. However, clear and decisive data on the phenomenon are as elusive as those who walk the streets, use service-station restrooms, and lack permanent shelter.
Part of the problem is simply counting how many people are actually homeless. That’s because there are two methods used to estimate homelessness, and neither yields results that can be used to create effective solutions. The reality may be that there are no programs that directly address the expanse and diversity of the problem.
Counting the homeless
Counting the homeless is problematic for both practical and political reasons. And, these are buried in the methodology that is employed. Researchers rely on two methods: Point-in-time counts and period-prevalence counts. Point-in-time (also called cross-sectional) counts attempt to enumerate all of the people who are literally homeless on a given day or during a given week. This is the method that will be used when we take our national census in 2020, just as it has been the method used in past censuses.
These studies tend to overestimate the proportion of people who are chronically homeless, as well as those who cycle in and out of homelessness. But they underestimate the number of people who have a one-time-only experience of homelessness or who are homeless for short periods of time.
Period-prevalence counts take place over time and are, at best, crude estimates. This method requires observers to do a periodic count of homeless people in a specific locale. The major problem, of course, is that many homeless people are transient, moving from place to place according to their needs. At best, researchers using this method have become adept at counting and describing people in shelters and people using traditional health and welfare services.
However, there is a tendency to underestimate the number of homeless people because about one-fourth of all requests for emergency shelter are unmet due to lack of resources, and many other homeless people do not use these services on a regular basis.
There is also the problem of counting people living in cars, campgrounds, under bridges or freeway overpasses, in rural areas, or simply squeezing in between shrubs and building walls for the evening. As Y.L. Wong pointed out in “Understanding Homelessness,” published by the Fannie May Foundation of Washington, D.C., “For most people, homelessness is neither a short-term nor a long-term pattern. Rather, it is part of an ongoing pattern of residential instability.”
Identifying the homeless
Between the Great Depression of the 1930s and about 1960, the homeless were primarily single men who lived alone and survived from day to day with wages from temporary labor or, if they were old enough, small incomes from Social Security or pensions. Many suffered from physical or mental disabilities, often exacerbated by substance or alcohol abuse. They were the stereotypical “hoboes” of legends and folk songs.
During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the nation witnessed an increase in the number of young people, the “hippies” of the era, who slept on the streets or in doorways. They were often portrayed as escapees from the indulgences of the newly expanded middle class, with its bourgeois values. Then, as we moved into the dot-com era and the economy expanded tremendously — but only for some — the nature of the homeless changed dramatically. And, perhaps the most noted factor was the number of homeless families.
It is the family unit that is most likely to cycle in and out of homelessness. This is the situation among the “working poor” who are one paycheck, one hospital visit, or one unexpected expense of any kind away from being homeless. Writing in California’s Social Problems, Ron Fagan claims that “people who are homeless include people from a diversity of ethnic, racial, and social backgrounds; people of both sexes and a wide age range; families, including families with children; single people, runaway and throwaway youth; people with physical health, mental health, and substance abuse problems; people who are homeless primarily for economic reasons; people whose homelessness is temporary or chronic; people who do not work, and people who work for low wages.”
Housing and income
The cost of a house, regardless of what your building contractor or Realtor may tell you, is based on what people can afford and are willing to pay. How else can one possibly explain why the same $250,000, 3 bedroom, 2 bath house in Madera would cost $1,000,000 in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, or Palo Alto. But, consider this: That same Madera house would be outrageously overpriced in Indianapolis, Indiana, (range: $119,000 to $135,000), Frankfort, Kentucky, (range: $149,000 to $164,000), Lincoln, Nebraska (range: 105,000 to $165,000), or Selma, Alabama (range: $55,000 to 73,000). If these prices surprise you, Google Zillow and then choose a city to get current real estate listings. That’s how I got the figures that I just reported.
Homelessness is a particular problem in California where one-fourth of the nation’s homeless endure lives of misery because income for our successful residents is much higher than it is in other states. In 2018, the median household income (half of all households are above this figure and half are below) is $63,783. (Madera, $40,034.) The state’s mean household income (the arithmetic average) is $91,149. (Madera, $59,598.) When statisticians see a difference of this order between the median and the mean, it means that the range of incomes is skewed toward the low end. In other words, some people make much more than the average, while a majority makes much less. In Madera, the top five percent of the population has a mean household income of $255,000, while nearly 40 percent earn less than $35,000.
Although homelessness is usually cited as a problem for major metropolitan areas, it is also a nearly unique problem for Madera. The reason: while the rest of the nation prospered during the decade of the 1990s, Madera did not, according to “Now Is the Time: Places Left Behind in the New Economy,” issued by the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Because Madera was identified as a “pocket of poverty,” it was featured on the PBS “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” on Oct. 14, 1999. Unfortunately, not much has changed during the past two decades.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.