Monday, July 6, 2015

Homelessness in Los Angeles

Over the past 15 years homelessness in America has declined by at least 20 percent, thanks in part to better government policies and better drugs for many psychological conditions. This has been one of the most positive things about the 21st century so far. But the news from Los Angeles suggests that the trend may have reversed:
“If it feels like there are people living on the streets and under bridges everywhere you look, it’s because there are,” Bianca Barragan wrote for the website L.A. Curbed last month, after a survey by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found an 85 percent increase in the number of people living in tents and cars over the past two years. In all, the census counted more than 25,000 homeless people in the city, up 12 percent over the same period.

In my hillside neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, the value of a two-bedroom home has climbed to $750,000 or more. Buy in, and you could get a nice view of a valley with sycamore trees and a homeless camp. On social media, I hear my neighbors demanding that city officials intensify indigent-removal efforts.
I'm not sure what to make of this. Liberals blame rising inequality and the lack of affordable housing; anecdotal evidence suggests that some  people in very expensive places like Boston and Silicon Valley are sleeping in their cars because even working full time they can't find any place to live. But the lesson of the past 15 years is that homelessness is a specific problem with causes to some extent separate from the overall economic conditions, so just crying "inequality" may not be all that relevant.

One thing we do know is that the last time America was dominated by plutocrats, in the robber baron era, we also had a big homeless problem, a rootless population of people wandering the country from east to west, sleeping in haystacks and alleys. The sense that working people are getting shafted by the rich seems to be spreading again in the country. It seems logical to me that this will lead to more and more people just walking away from a system that seems rigged against them. After all, the rich and their Republican spokesmen don't seem to have any respect for the labor of ordinary people, so why should they slave away at jobs that mainly benefit someone else?

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

It doesn't surprise me that LA's homelessness problem is on the rise again. The city is a hole - horribly designed, inconvenient to live in, and with a high cost of living. If you aren't comfortably well off there, then you're likely miserable poor.

One thing to note is that this increase is over the past two years - and it's important to remember that homelessness occurs over time. An economic shift can occur which starts driving someone into the red, but it can take time for them to bottom out entirely.

Part of the problem is that effects can snowball. Losing your job isn't the end of the world on it's own, but if you then also suffer further setbacks - for example, losing your car because money is too tight - it can make it even harder than ever to get back on your feet. In a car-city like LA, having access to transportation can mean the difference between getting a new job or remaining unemployed, so losing your car can trap you where you are - both literally and figuratively.

It's true that economics is only one factor to consider, but it's still a major one. And it's compounded by changes in the legal landscape, as well as in the availability of the necessities of life.

If people could easily move to other regions of the country to find work and cheaper places to live, they might - but remember that unlike in earlier periods of historical hardship, itinerancy simply isn't as feasible as it used to be.

Hitchhiking is nowadays illegal. Jumping into a boxcar was relatively harmless in the 1930s, with most individuals simply being thrown off the train when discovered. Today it will almost certainly land you in jail with a $10,000 bail - and that's assuming you can even still find operating freight lines where you live anymore. Bus lines no longer service much of the country, and even where they do prices are prohibitively high for people who can barely feed themselves.

So if you can't bum a ride somewhere with better prospects anymore, what the heck can you do? You're stuck. Unless you're willing risk your hide trying to get in with professional "coyotes" and other criminals specializing in moving people around sereptitiously, that is - and even then, that option's not cheap or affordable either.

Now, perhaps more than ever in this country, being stuck in poverty is illegal.