The Issue of Homelessness

James Harris always begins with a God Bless You before asking for money. He hates asking people for anything, so this three word phrase serves as his own offering. Harris, a veteran, has had AIDS for thirty years. When the medication stopped working, the world began to crumble around him. He became depressed and was ultimately evicted from his place in Hollywood. I’ve been beaten, robbed, chased, he said. People steal your tents and your tarps and your clothes. I’ve lost everything I owned. Harris gets by on $900 a month from Social Security. His most recent attempt at making money was when he spent $105 dollars on a suit and makeup for a costume of a villain from Batman. He jostled for tips on Hollywood Boulevard, but didn’t make a dime. James Harris’ story is just one of many across the United States. Every story, in one way or another, begins with a downward spiral, and ends with a dead end, a situation devoid of hope.

The US Department of Health and Human Services uses the following to define homelessness: A homeless individual is defined in section 330(h)(5)(A) as an individual who lacks housing (without regard to whether the individual is a member of a family), including an individual whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility (e.g., shelters) that provides temporary living accommodations, and an individual who is a resident in transitional housing. A homeless person is an individual without permanent housing who may live on the streets; stay in a shelter, mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building or vehicle; or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation. [Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C., 254b)]

This is a widely accepted definition in the United States, however other countries have alternate definitions. Due to the inability to come up with one accepted definition of homelessness worldwide, it is near impossible to compare figures from one country to another. What we do know, however, is how the issue of homelessness affects the United States and its respective cities. Today’s day and age has seen homelessness rise to new heights. The issue began during the Industrial Revolution, and since then, homelessness rates have ballooned. The state of California holds the highest homelessness rate, and it’s not close, while cities such as Los Angeles and New York are especially affected. In Santa Rosa, the homeless are everywhere, as seen by encampments scattered across town. The National Coalition for the Homeless and The National Alliance to End Homelessness are two major organizations devoted to finding solutions to solve this issue. Homelessness is especially evident in California and it is considered ground zero for the issue. Although there is no simple solution, groups across the world have proposed and even implemented actions to solve homelessness in their respective regions.

From simply walking the streets of my home town, I can see that homelessness is a problem in Santa Rosa. From in parks, to under freeways, to on sidewalks, the evidence is apparent. Contributing to this are Santa Rosa’s housing prices. Thanks partly to Santa Rosa and the Bay Area, California is the second most expensive state to live in, right behind Hawaii. The average cost of a home is over one million dollars, $400,000 dollars more expensive than the third most expensive state to live in, Massachusetts. Higher housing prices are the major indicator for high homelessness rates, and Santa Rosa is no exception. After the Tubbs Fire that destroyed thousands of homes and drove up housing prices, Sonoma County’s homeless population grew by six percent, totalling around three thousand people.

Put simply, the issue of homelessness is no more evident than right here in Santa Rosa. One would think that a policy would have been put in place years ago to combat the high rates of homelessness in Santa Rosa, but that is not the case. Santa Rosa local government officials have yet to put together a concrete solution, and instead have focused on the health and safety of city by removing large encampments. A few examples of areas that have been cleared of homeless are Homeless Hill, the Sixth Street underpass, Roseland’s Dollar Tree, and the Joe Rodota Trail. The cycle is always the same. Campers gather in a camp, it grows in mass, it is disbanded by the government, and those same campers are forced to live in another camp, restarting the cycle. The most recent example of this is Northpoint Corporate Center, a 250-acre business park in southwest Santa Rosa. The homeless are parking automobiles along the streets of business park.

All they want is a safe, quiet place to park and sleep at night. As mentioned before, these people were pushed out of other encampments after Santa Rosa prioritized the clearing out of camps with their new homelessness policy- Homeless Encampment Assistance Pilot Program- in August 2017. In addition, the Tubbs Fire put exacerbated the issue. Over time the number of vehicles parked along the business center’s streets has risen exponentially. People who work in the business park and homeless people in the automobiles have a strained relationship to say the least. Authorities are called every day to deal with complaints from business owners. It is clear the current situation is not working. We all expressed our sympathy for their circumstances and life, but now it’s affecting our area, Keith Woods, President of the Northpoint Business Park says. We’re going to need help from our city. The city of Santa Rosa is currently exploring long-term solutions to the homelessness crisis.

Taking a broader perspective, California is by far the state with the greatest homeless population. The federal Housing and Urban Development Department estimates that there are 130,000 people experiencing homelessness statewide on a given night. That number is 25 percent of the entire United States homeless population. Furthermore, California holds 70 percent of unsheltered homeless individuals in the country, the highest percentage in the country. The unsheltered homeless are people who don’t utilize temporary living arrangements like shelters, and instead live in places not meant for human habitation. Christopher Martin, legislative advocate at Housing California, states The lack of shelters is due to a lack of resources, and we don’t really have a plan to end homelessness. We don’t have strong programs to end homelessness on the state level. We know the shelters are a part of the solution, but at the end of the day, we know that we need exits for the shelters.

Of course, some areas of California are more affected by homelessness than others. In California, Los Angeles County has the highest population of homeless individuals at about 55,000. This was second only to New York. However, there is a major difference between the two cities. While 95 percent of New York’s homeless population are considered sheltered, only 25 percent of those in Los Angeles are considered sheltered. That means there are far more street and park dwellers in LA. California has put aside $5 billion for homelessness and and housing affordability in 2018-19. $600 million of that has been allotted to homelessness response programs, like permanent housing measures, assisting homeless youth and victims of domestic violence, and mental health services. Although it is early, we have yet to see major statistical change in terms of homelessness in California.

Homelessness in America, although to a lesser degree compared to the modern age, began in the 1640’s. At that time, being homeless was seen as a character flaw. It was believed that a good Christian would have their needs met by God. The homeless were forced to prove their worth in towns that they wandered into. Today, many see homelessness as the complex social issue that it truly is, but these previous beliefs persist. The Industrial Revolution caused the first larger scale wave of homeless people in our country. People flocked to the cities, walking the streets in search of jobs. Poor safety regulations for these jobs caused injury and death. The disabled had no means to provide for themselves or their families. Another historical cause of homelessness was addiction and PTSD, first seen following WW1. Opiate addiction ran rampant following WW1 in veterans and sometimes spreading to their families. PTSD caused a decline in quality of life for many veterans, leading them toward the path of homelessness. Natural disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake, the Drought of the 30s in Oklahoma and Texas, and Hurricane Katrina affected millions households and displaced families. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights need more detail)

In California, a major rise in homelessness began in the U-Turn of the 80’s. The economy shifted away from service industries and toward manufacturing, where wages were far lower. Of the new jobs created during the 1980s, three-quarters were at minimum-wage levels. The number of Americans living under the poverty line went up to 15%. Throughout the 1980’s, around 4.5 million units were removed from the nation’s housing stock. Half of these units were occupied by low-income households. In addition, the nation’s public housing program was thrown down the drain. (more detail on this)

Homelessness is not just a problem in the United States. Europe also suffers from high homelessness rates. However, Finland, it seems, has found a solution to homelessness, one that the US should study and possibly utilize here at home. At the moment, homelessness rates are rising across Europe, but not in Finland. Most homeless policies work on the assumption that the homeless should solve their problems, whether it be lack of income or health issues, before they get permanent housing. Finland is taking a different approach- giving them a home first. Introduced in 2007, Housing First is a scheme that follows the idea that having a real,permanent home can actually help solve the issues mentioned earlier, like health and social problems. While a person is being given a home, receive individual support services. They each have a housing advisor at their disposal who can give them advice on many things, like paying rent or applying for government benefits. In addition, there are people who can assist them in managing financing and debt. The most amazing part of this is that there are no longer any homeless shelters in Finland. They have all been turned into the described supportive housing. Juha Kaakinen, Director of the Y-Foundation, (a social enterprise that provides housing to Housing First), understands the high costs of the strategy. However, she mentions that there is ample evidence from many countries that shows it is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it. Investment in ending homelessness always pays back, to say nothing of the human and ethical reasons. It is safe to say Finland solved their homelessness problem, and all it took was a change in mentality and a little morer money spent. The United States would be wise to consider performing a case study on the Housing First project in Finland. Although the countries are very different, a success this massive should be at the very least dissected and considered.
Although no Finland-level success has been made in the US, many city’s actions have gone in the right direction in terms of reducing homelessness. For people living near the poverty level in California, eviction is the biggest step toward homelessness. Over 140,000 people receive eviction notices every year in California. In San Francisco, the people have voted to pass Proposition F, which funds nonprofits to provide legal help for tenants facing eviction. Many times, when people receive eviction notices there appears to be no options and no hope. However free legal counsel can ease the fears of tenants. Although the non-profit lawyers can not always stop the eviction, they can help foster agreements between tenants and landlords, or organize payment plans. The lawyers are not always the solution to all of the tenants problems, but they do provide something very valuable- time. The legal council gives petrified tenants with eviction notices more time to figure out their next move and locate alternative living arrangements. This can be the difference between a tenant living on the street and living in a home.

Project Solid Ground in Los Angeles is taking a more innovative approach. In addition to offering free legal advice, the project is experimenting with putting money toward an alternate group for help. Many times, when a person is evicted, they will move in with family members. However, this arrangement can quickly become uncomfortable for the host. A host family member is usually reluctant to collect even the smallest amount of rent money from the person they are offering help to. To avoid this awkwardness that may lead to extra suffering, Solid Ground plans to make small payments to the host for a period of time. This makes the relationship between the the tenant and the host, like maybe a struggling son and a weary father, far less strained. It also offers a great amount of stability, financially, socially, and emotionally, for all parties involved. Although this is just an experiment, new and groundbreaking ideas are welcome especially in California, where homelessness is a serious problem.

The issue of homelessness has reached new heights in the state of California. Although the United States has yet to find a solution to the problem, many groups have proposed actions and found varying levels of success. As outlined earlier, homelessness directly affects our community, unlike many other areas. The Northpoint Business Park is just one example of this in Santa Rosa, while the larger body of California can be proven extremely affected simply through disheartening statistics. Starting in the 1640’s, and worsening over time do to factors such as industry change, addiction, PTSD, lower paying jobs, and natural disasters, homelessness has recently reached a screaming climax. Solutions, such as the Housing First scheme in Finland, and the experiments in California such as Proposition F and Solid Ground each have found success of varying amounts, ultimately heading in the correct direction. (Need closing)

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