In January 2020, there were 580,466 people experiencing homelessness in the United States according to data collected by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of those, 161,548 of them were in California, but these numbers were collected before the Covid-19 Pandemic, which saw 42% of US adults reporting difficulty covering usual expenses, including housing, as of December 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, California’s homeless population increased by 37% with unsheltered homeless populations up 45% and chronic homelessness up by a staggering 64%. We hardly need to see these figures to know that homelessness is on the rise. Most of us see people experiencing homelessness everyday: crowded and messy tent encampments, folks sleeping in public places, people with mental illness exacerbated by their lack of shelter. But the burden of seeing homelessness is nothing compared to the burden of being homeless.
Pre-Covid data shows that most (61%) people experiencing homelessness receive temporary shelter through the nation’s homeless services. Unsheltered populations – those sleeping in places not meant for human habitation including sidewalks, subway trains, vehicles, and parks – are particularly vulnerable. Chronically homeless people – those who have been continuously homeless for at least a year; or experienced homelessness at least four times in the last three years for a combined length of time of at least a year – are the most likely to be unsheltered; 66% are without any shelter at all. Although chronically homeless individuals make up 19% of the homeless population, this group often represents the face of homelessness in our collective mind. This may be because California contains 51% of the country’s unsheltered population and about 84% of its chronically homeless. This is the group many of us fear or think of as “choosing to be homeless”. This is also the group most likely to suffer from substance abuse disorders and mental illness, both of which are exacerbated by homelessness (it should be noted that addiction is usually the result of homelessness, not the cause).
The reality is, more people than we think are at risk of experiencing homelessness, especially in California and especially in the wake of the Pandemic. The main reason people become homeless is because they cannot find housing they can afford. Chronic health conditions, domestic violence, and systemic inequality are also factors that cause homelessness. In 2019, 6.3 million US American households experienced severe housing cost burdens meaning that they spent more than 50% of their income on housing (economists recommend spending at or below 30% of income on housing). That number increased to over 7.5 million by July 2021 according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The number of “doubled up” people – those sharing the housing of others for economic reasons – stood at 3.7 million before the Pandemic. Some doubled up people or families have fragile relationships with their hosts or face other challenges, which puts them at risk of homelessness.
In California, the homelessness crisis is the affordable housing crisis. In January 2020, before the Pandemic, 70% of California’s homeless population was newly homeless according to HUD data. We’re talking about low income people and families who fell on hard times and found themselves without a home for the first time in their lives. I bring this up not to inspire sympathy for this group over another, but to illustrate that we, as a community, are letting thousands of our people fall through the cracks. New home construction has fallen significantly short since the Great Recession. Costly permitting processes, lengthy environmental reviews, and strict zoning laws keep new home construction at a minimum, especially in California where many property owners and communities, including low income ones, ascribe to the “not in my backyard” anti-development credo. Without affordable purchasing options, rent rates have risen as well. In November 2021, there were 1 million more renter households than there were at the end of the second quarter of 2020 according to a National Association of Realtors report. As more renters compete for housing, prices go up, which means some people are priced out of housing altogether. Currently, 1 in 6 US renters are not caught up on rent with eviction and homelessness looming. That number goes up for renters living with children and for people of color with nearly a third of Black renters facing hardships.
Since the lack of a home is the number one reason why people become homeless, providing people with homes is the number one way to end homelessness. “Housing first” models are gaining popularity among advocacy groups and nonprofits for addressing this root cause. This approach prioritizes finding permanent housing first so families and individuals can then focus on pursuing personal goals like finding work, studying for the SATs, and getting treatment for substance abuse. In other approaches, housing is often contingent upon completing treatment programs or finding work, both of which are pretty difficult without permanent housing. Rapid rehousing similarly aims to get people into housing quickly by offering short-term rent assistance and is offered without preconditions.
For its part, the city of Davis has expanded homeless services in recent years (in large part due to outcries from the community following an increase in the number of people “aggressively” panhandling and sleeping Downtown) to include a respite center and Operation Roomkey, which opened unoccupied hotel rooms during the Pandemic for people experiencing homelessness. But there are still no large-scale homeless shelters or enough emergency beds in Davis, which is home to around 200 people experiencing homelessness; 200 people who are a part of our community as much as anyone else.
Our systems and services have largely failed us, or they’ve failed enough of us for us to realize that it’s time for a new approach. There are many nonprofits, government organizations, and activists leading these approaches which include housing-first models, rapid rehousing, and addressing massive holes in our healthcare system which leave people, housed or unhoused, with substance abuse disorders and mental illness particularly vulnerable. There’s a new approach we as individuals and as a community can take as well, and it’s simpler and more complicated all at once: we need to shift our mindset when thinking about homelessness, or rather people experiencing homelessness.
Most of us think of homeless people as deficient in some way: they’re rude or dirty or they’re lazy and entitled or they’re dangerous and on drugs or they just can’t get along. But this isn’t really accurate or very helpful. With so many of us struggling it’s past time we realized we’re the ones who are here to take care of each other and it’s our duty and privilege to do so. I invite you to consider the problem of homelessness as a failing of the community, rather than the failing of individual homeless people. People experiencing homelessness are, above all, human beings. They’re also full-fledged members of the community and citizens of Davis who need our support, compassion, and respect.
Shifting your mindset doesn’t happen all at once. You can practice compassion by catching yourself thinking or saying things that maybe aren’t so compassionate: for example, “ugh, I wish I didn’t have to see those tents on my way to work” or “he’s just asking for money for drugs”. If you’d like to take your new mindset out for a spin, you are welcome to volunteer to support your fellow community members at the Co-op’s 36th Annual Holiday Meal, where we’ll serve 400-700 people from all walks of life a free hot meal on Christmas Eve. You can also donate. You’re also more than welcome to challenge your anti-development views (if you have them) or donate to Paul’s Place, a multi-functional housing center designed to serve the most vulnerable individuals living homeless in Davis by providing housing and wraparound services. You can also donate food to the Freedge (pictured at the top of this post) located at the Co-op (left of the exit doors, past the bike racks). Davis Food Co-op staff fill the Freedge daily with produce, dairy, bakery items, pantry and staples we are otherwise unable to sell. Anyone is welcome to add or take items from the Freedge at no cost. Whatever you do, go forth with a compassionate, understanding, and open heart.