In California, the rising number of homeless people are not who you may think they are. The Los Angeles Times editorial board recently drove home that point by personalizing what it means to be homeless in the United States' second-most populous city in 2018.
Many people think of homelessness as a problem of substance abusers and mentally ill people, of chronic skid row street-dwellers pushing shopping carts. But increasingly, the crisis in Los Angeles today is about a less visible (but more numerous) group of “economically homeless” people. These are people who have been driven onto the streets or into shelters by hard times, bad luck and California’s irresponsible failure to address its own housing needs.
Consider Nadia, whose story has become typical. When she decided she had to end her abusive marriage, she knew it would be hard to find an affordable place to live with her three young children. With her husband, she had paid $2,000 a month for a three-bedroom condo in the San Fernando Valley, but prices were rising rapidly, and now two-bedroom apartments in the area were going for $2,400 — an impossible rent for a single parent who worked part time at Magic Mountain.
Nadia and her children are among the economically homeless — men, women and, often enough, families, who find themselves without a place to live because of some kind of setback or immediate crisis: a divorce, a short-term illness, a loss of a job, an eviction. In many cities across the nation, these are not necessarily problems that would plunge a person into homelessness. But here they can. Why? Because of the shockingly high cost of housing in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the most important thing that anyone should take away from Times' editors' take on Nadia's situation is that she is functional adult who is more than capable of improving her lot. Later in the editorial, the LA Times' editors disclose that she was able to get her family into a homeless shelter and that she has been able to secure a full time job doing data entry at an insurance company, where only a few of her co-workers know of her homeless status.
Nadia is far from alone in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is one of the wealthiest cities in California. There, the New Beginnings counseling center has made arrangements to allow up to 150 Californians who are either living in their cars or in recreational vehicles to be able to park them overnight in the otherwise empty parking lots of local churches and government offices.
The clients can park after 7 p.m., but have to clear out as early as 6 a.m. The benefit is that the vehicles are no longer parked on city streets, which riles some residents and merchants. And because the lots are monitored by New Beginnings, the clients, who all go through a screening process, can at least feel safe while they sleep.
Santiago Geronimo works in the kitchen of a high-end Santa Barbara restaurant and until recently, he, his girlfriend and her son Luis lived in a two-bedroom apartment shared by four adults and three kids. But the girlfriend, Luisa Ramirez, lost her retail clerk job because of a back injury, and they've lived in a Ford Explorer since September. Their new home is a church parking lot on the Goleta border.
There is a common element among many of California's employed homeless, in that many were living in apartments or houses until one of their household's members experienced a job loss. Beyond that, many were employed with relatively good incomes until they lost their jobs, where they soon found that their available employment options were limited to low-paying jobs that weren't enough to pay their rents or mortgages.
Then the evictions came, and they became homeless. All across the state.
Steve Lopez, a LA Times columnist, asked a good question about why California's working population doesn't move to where housing is cheaper:
You might ask why people of lesser means don't head to less expensive areas than Santa Barbara — it's a fair question, and I've written about people who eventually did make such a move. In Santa Barbara, the answers I got were the same ones I've heard elsewhere in coastal California. People hold open the option of leaving, but many are connected to specific places by history, family and employment connections, and they're not quite ready to give up on a turnaround, move to a place they don't know, and start over from scratch.
Besides that, local economies rely on those of lesser means, so where are they supposed to live?
"You know," said Phil, "there's a huge Hispanic population that does all the damn work around here. Every restaurant you go into, you can watch them slaving away. And they're taking care of people's gardens and everything else, and they wind up with eight or 10 people living in a one-bedroom place."
Until that doesn't work, as Santiago Geronimo found out.
The truth is that many Californians have tried to move to greener pastures, as many have from California's economically-distressed Central Valley, where that region's oil industry has yet to recover from the decline of oil prices from July 2014 through February 2016. According to Moody's, for every job lost in the oil and gas industry, an additional 3.43 jobs may be lost in other sectors, creating a negative deficit that other, more strongly growing sectors of the economy must be in overdrive to overcome, just to get to the point where any positive economic growth may be recorded. California's Central Valley lost thousands of oil and gas industry jobs during the downturn, where some of the impact of those losses are also being felt in other communities throughout the state's interior.
In Bakersfield, in Kern County, where many of the state's oil and gas industry jobs are centered, the city's homeless shelters were forced to turn away Californians seeking shelter earlier this year because they ran out of space to accommodate them during a short cold snap, when having to sleep outdoors became too intolerable.
Some of the economically displaced from California's Central Valley have migrated to where jobs are available in the state's thriving metropolises, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they've run into the same situation of excessively high rents. Consequently, they've joined the ranks of the employed homeless.
Others are fleeing the state altogether, paradoxically seeking to escape the "prosperity" of the state's coastal cities, with the housing shortage-driven soaring rents and declining quality of life in those cities becoming a primary motivation for their flight.
All these things together would appear to have set California on a very different course than the rest of the United States. At the very least, where the trends for homelessness are concerned.
For his part, the state's governor, Jerry Brown, refused to declare the state's homelessness crisis to be an emergency in 2016, which denied the state's counties and cities any additional resources to combat homelessness. The state's data for homeless in 2017 shows the results of that decision, where at the national level, if not for California, the trend for homelessness in the U.S. would have improved.