The largest, wealthiest cities in America are filling up with tent cities — especially on the west coast, where East Coast style right-to-shelter laws are rare — and if the spectacle of human misery doesn't alarm you, perhaps you should be thinking about communicable disease epidemics.
It's actually not that hard to deal with homelessness. The evidence is well-established: homeless families should be given heavy rent subsidies through housing vouchers; long-term homeless individuals with mental health and substance problems should be given unconditional housing ("Housing First").
The problem is: where does the housing come from?
People who own homes have seen the value of their housing skyrocket — even as other long-term forms of security like pensions have withered — so they are apt to be totally bound up in the retention of their property values, seeing them as both a source of wealth and their only real buffer against a desperate old age of neglect and even homelessness.
In California, this is exacerbated by the state's ban on market-rate property-tax increases, meaning that the value of your home goes up and up but your taxes remain nearly flat.
Thus the epidemic of NIMBYism, with neighborhood associations blocking the construction of new multi-family dwellings, and violently opposing any kind of subsidized housing for homeless people as a blight on their neighborhood.
Local mistrust of ambitious development projects is also founded on a long history of developer misconduct — no language on Earth contains the phrase "as beneficent as a real-estate developer" — from gentrification to strong-arm evictions and worse. And since property values are so high, anyone displaced from a neighborhood by rising costs can't find any other comparable neighborhoods to buy in — if you're lucky enough to own a house, that's where you're stuck, until your kids liquidate it to pay for your senior care and use any remainder to pay down their student debts.
Add to all this the corporate world's refusal to pay tax (abetted by the Trump administration and financial secrecy havens in the US and offshore). It's not just federal taxes that are being starved by corporate tax-evasion, but local coffers as well. When cities try to remedy this, they're met with all-out war from corporate America (see, for example, Amazon's high-profile gangland-style execution of a Seattle law that would have taxed the company to help alleviate Seattle's homelessness epidemic).
That's how we've ended up deadlocked: inequality, tax breaks for the rich, massive corporate power, the destruction of pension benefits — oh, and racism. Because homelessness is, to a first approximation, a synonym for "not white."
The last obstacle to getting affordable housing built, though, might be the hardest one to surmount: race. Homelessness disproportionately affects people of color, particularly African Americans. They're about 12 percent of the US population, 25 percent of the population living in deep poverty, and 50 percent of the population experiencing homelessness, Wilkins says. Mass incarceration of African American men can leave African American women and children more vulnerable to financial problems, and African American families typically have less wealth in terms of savings and home ownership. Displacement of African American populations from cities means that those people who remain have a weakened family support structure—no nearby grandmother or cousin to go stay with if their finances take a bad turn.
"That's the dirty part of the stories of vibrancy and all the things people like about cities. I think there's a lot of folks who, if they were truthful with themselves and one another, would admit that they feel comfortable in cities that have fewer black people in them, and that is heartbreaking," Wilkins says. "It means people's tastes for a vibrant, healthy, diverse community have limits that are driven by racism." (In 1970, 14 percent of San Franciscans were black; today it's about 5 percent.)
Big Tech Isn't the Problem With Homelessness. It's All of Us [Adam Rogers/Wired]
(Image: Sage Ross, CC-BY-SA)