The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has just released data from its 2019 Annual Homelessness Report to Congress and the picture is encouraging for much of the country and catastrophic for California.
More than half the country – 29 states and the District of Columbia – reduced their homeless populations from 2018 to 2019. Nationwide, Veterans and Families with Children Continued to Decline.
Increases in homeless in California and Oregon, however, “offset those nationwide decreases, causing an overall increase in homelessness of 2.7 percent in 2019.” In fact, the stunning numbers in California alone — where the number of homeless increased by 21,306 people, or a staggering one-year increase of 16.4 percent — is more than the total national increase of every other state combined.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson is describing the situation in the Golden State in apocalyptic terms.
“Homelessness in California is at a crisis level and needs to be addressed by local and state leaders with crisis-like urgency. Addressing these challenges will require a broader, community-wide response that engages every level of government to compassionately house our fellow citizens who call the streets their home.”
The 16.4% increase, occurring at a time when the issue is getting much attention in California, is dispiriting. Double-digit changes over the course of a single year are rare to see in any quality-of-life category that the government tracks.
The picture is even more bleak when viewed with greater perspective, pre-dating both the current governor and the current president. The California Globe analyzed HUD’s “Point-In-Time Estimates” from 2007–2019.
These reflect the findings of the comprehensive annual survey that the government conducts every January to create benchmarks. From 2014-2019, the change in total homelessness in California is 32.8%. That compares to a drop of 1.5% for the country as a whole. Oregon is second, with a 30.5% increase. No other state experienced even a 20% increase, and 46 of the 54 states and territories dropped over that time span.
It is clear that whatever allowed Illinois’ homeless population to fall 22.2% or Georgia’s to fall 36.8% is not working in California.
A dire portrait beyond statistics
The grim statistics don’t convey the full story of the struggles faced by these human beings and the communities that grapple with providing adequate housing. Diseases long thought essentially eradicated have made a comeback in California. A chilling story this summer in the Atlantic titled “Medieval Diseases Are Infecting California’s Homeless” described how “typhus, tuberculosis, and other illnesses are spreading quickly through camps and shelters.”
In Los Angeles, City Hall had to be temporarily closed when rats invaded the building, as typhus, a bacterial infection that spreads via infected fleas on rodent and cat fur, was breaking out. There have been outbreaks of Shigella bacteria, spread through human feces. That creates its own vicious cycle because the bacteria itself leads to shigellosis, which causes diarrhea that then spreads to others who sleep on streets where sufferers have relieved themselves. Hepatitis A, which is also spread through feces, has infected at least a thousand Southern Californians, according to the magazine. Outbreaks of trench fever, also known as Bartonella quintana, have occurred as well.
If the sudden return of long dormant diseases isn’t enough to snap authorities into action, a particularly shocking photo can occasionally break through the do-nothing stupor.
Pooping in the Supermarket: the New Normal
Deborah Kan, a longtime reporter and producer at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, recently left journalism to found Being Patient, a community site that focuses on long-term health needs.
She interrupted her usual Twitter stream of stories about Alzheimer’s research to share a photo she took last Sunday at the Safeway on Marina Boulevard in San Francisco. A man had gone to the toilet paper aisle, pulled his pants down and defecated on the floor.
— Deborah Kan (@debkhk) December 15, 2019
The tweet went viral, with 2400 retweets and “man poops in grocery store” now returns 13 million results on Google. A second tweet Kan sent three days later, featuring an array of used syringes on the ground on Union Street, barely created a ripple. Two retweets for a photo that apparently reflects how San Franciscans expect to live. With a new district attorney elected on a promise not to punish quality of life crimes, it’s hard to imagine San Francisco improving on this score, especially as the state’s homeless population continues to grow.
As America takes a break to reflect during the Christmas holiday, it’s perhaps time to confront basic questions about what citizens owe each other. Is housing a right? Is defecating inside a grocery store the new normal? Are our leaders up to these challenges?
With California struggling to contain the “crisis of homelessness,” how the state answers these questions may just define its future.