Crowded encampments have sprung up along transportation corridors, rivers, and sidewalks up and down the West Coast following a surge in homelessness, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released this month.
Though the national total of homeless people grew by just 1 percent a year ago, to 554,000, California, Oregon, and Washington state battled a 14 percent increase in their homeless populations. Los Angeles County numbers alone skew the homelessness rates. Excluding that region, the nation would boast of a decline in total homelessness of 1.5 percent since last year.
A quarter of those counted are “unsheltered” homeless people sleeping outside.
Ten city or county governments have declared states of emergency on homelessness since 2015. The designation helps officials relax or bypass regulations that prohibit use of churches or public spaces for shelter. The Los Angeles city council made the declaration in tandem with a $100 million commitment to confront its homelessness epidemic. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti pins part of the blame for his region’s crisis on the lack of affordable housing.
“The city of Los Angeles is making progress in our efforts—housing more than 9,000 people in 2016 alone,” he said. “But … we still face a historic shortage of affordable housing, a staggering mental health crisis, insufficient support for veterans and foster youth, and inadequate resources to help formerly incarcerated Angelenos turn their lives around.”
Everett, Wash., population 110,000, lies north of Seattle, about 80 miles from the Canadian border. The seat of Snohomish County, it saw a 65 percent increase in unsheltered living over the past two years. Besides a reported high cost of living, the city has a high rate of opioid addiction. The severity of the problem has led the city of Everett to file suit against Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin painkillers.
Another prong in the city’s attack on homelessness is a Catholic Housing Services permanent housing project. The 65-unit “Safe Streets Supportive Housing” is part of a bigger program offering mental health and addiction recovery services. It mimics programs in other states where permanent housing has been the first and most important step in reducing homelessness—ahead of tackling substance abuse or mental and family problems.
In urban areas along the West Coast, a booming economy leads to higher rents, especially as millennials eschew their parents’ suburban lifestyles, driving up demand for city housing. In 2015, Portland, Ore., used $61 million of mostly federal money to build affordable housing under the condition that developers not allow the rents to float to market levels for 60 years.
Nationally, the news is better. Overall, homelessness has dropped by 13 percent since 2010, with homelessness in families with children declining by 5 percent. The number of veterans who are homeless also continues to drop, down nearly 50 percent since 2010. Some areas that made headway include Atlanta, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia, and Hawaii, following a 2015 state of emergency declaration statewide.
–By Rob Holmes