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Confronting homelessness: Two proposals

Homelessness has skyrocketed in California, where there are more homeless people than anywhere else in the nation. Official reports support this statement, but these reports do not include a vast number of young adults who, in previous times, would not have been living with their parental families. Nevertheless, official statistics alone have policy-makers scratching their heads and searching for answers.

This past December, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued “The 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report” (AHAR) to Congress. The data were collected during a one-night count in each state during January 2017. According to Capital Public Radio, the Sacramento member of the National Public Radio (NPR) network, Sharon Rapport, associate director for California policy at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, described the report as “the most authoritative” resource on the topic.

One-night counts like this, a technique that is also used by the Bureau of the Census for estimating total population during our decennial census counts, only give us a “snapshot” of how many people are homeless at a given point in time. Rapport said that the actual number of homeless people for at least part of the year was two to three times higher than the point-in-time tally. Skyrocketing

The AHAR report showed that homelessness in California rose by 9 percent from 2009 to 2016. Because of the effect of “compound interest,” that’s a little less than one percent per year. However, during the 12 months from January 2016 to January 2017, homelessness in California increased by an incredible 14 percent. There are no data to suggest why California experienced this dramatic spike in the long-term trend.

This is especially disturbing when we consider that the rest of the nation had only a one percent increase from 2016 to 2017, and the condition of national homelessness was 13 percent lower than California’s rate. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the increase both statewide and nationally was attributed to “a surge in the number of people living on the streets in Los Angeles and other West Coast cities, at least in part due to a shortage of affordable housing,” according to HUD.

What happens in California has a dramatic effect on national statistics because about 13 percent of the U.S. population resides in the Golden State. That means that roughly one of every eight residents of the country lives in California. But about one of every four homeless people are here.

The HUD report shows that on the night of the count, there were 553,742 homeless people in the nation. There were 134,278 homeless in California. New York had the next highest number of homeless people (89,503) and Florida came in third with 32,190. However, because New York has a smaller total population, it has the highest per capita rate of homelessness. This statistic, of course, does not detract from the massive problem that is being faced by our state legislators. Here are two proposals that address the issue:

1. The Seattle Solution. While California’s increase in homelessness of 14 percent from 2016 to 2017 is astounding, consider what happened in Seattle. It’s condition of homelessness increased by three times that rate in the two years from 2015 to 2017. Of course, Seattle has a much smaller actual number of people. Still, policy makers had to deal with at least 400 homeless encampments scattered around the city.

Because the state of Washington does not allow local governments to tax incomes and also caps real-estate taxes, the city council had to get creative. The nine-person council voted unanimously to impose a $275-per-employee tax on its largest companies like Starbucks, Amazon, Alaska Airlines, and Expedia. As was to be expected, the corporations not only objected, they fought back. For example, Amazon halted construction on a new 17-story tower.

Having so many high-powered companies is a two-edged sword. The industry brings jobs; jobs encourage in-migration; population growth forces the price of housing up. Consequently, home prices in Seattle are rising faster than anywhere else in the nation, with the median-priced home now at $777,000. As Joel Bernstein wrote in the Washington Post, “The truth is, when companies put down roots and grow, they create greater demand for public services, such as schools, police, and infrastructure.”

2. Stockton’s social experiment. It doesn’t take a trunk-load of sociological studies to understand that poverty and homelessness go hand it hand, although it is true that not all poverty-stricken people are homeless, and some homeless people are not poverty-stricken. Many working-class people may simply lack enough money for first-month and last-month rent, as well as a security deposit. In a number of our high-priced cities, this can be a lump sum of $5,000 or considerably more.

Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, looked at an experiment in Finland and similar ongoing test trials in Oakland and Canada. He took his findings to Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and head of its philanthropic foundation. Together, they have proposed a city-wide system for a program called Universal Basic Income. On the surface, the idea is quite simple: Hand out cash grants to needy families, no strings attached. That’s right: free money!

As antithetical as this seems to our economic system, Silicon Valley is watching the project very closely. The high-tech companies located between San Jose and San Francisco know that they have a potential army of robots that is poised to take many of the jobs that are now being done by human beings. I addressed this problem in a somewhat satirical column that was published here on July 8, 2017, “Useless in Seattle: A fable.” Although it was written “tongue-in-cheek,” it addressed the real question: What do we do when most of society’s work is done by machines?

Today, Stockton’s experiment is seen as a way to alleviate the problems of the working poor. For example, a single mother could use the cash to go back to school, while poor families could use the money to add fruit and fresh vegetables to their diets. But, some people argue that the program will undermine the work ethic, and the expansion of Stockton’s project to the state or the nation would cost trillions of dollars.

All of the opinions expressed have validity. The bottom line is that it was the emergence of brilliance among human beings that created the problems; it will take even greater brilliance to solve them.

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Jim Glynn may be contacted at

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