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The Cause of Increased Homelessness

What is the cause of the recent increase in homelessness in California?  El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells has this op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune placing the blame on the California Legislature and its ideological anti-personal-responsibility agenda, although he notes an ill-conceived initiative and a Supreme Court decision as well.
If we have any hope to "solve" the homeless problem, we must give some thought to its causes. It is deceptively easy to see the problem as one of access to resources, with job loss, the cost of housing or a death in the family being the most likely circumstances leading to homelessness. Homelessness, however, has a darker side to it; drug and alcohol abuse and an actual desire to stay homeless is at the core of it.

The idea of homelessness being a lifestyle choice is difficult for most of us to understand, but understanding the truth of this concept will help us all make decisions about the kinds of solutions that will result in meaningful change. It is also important to understand that the California Legislature has pushed an ideology that does little to moderate homelessness and much to propagate it. The explosion of homelessness that we as a region have experienced over the past two years can be directly linked to out-of-control substance abuse and a legislative agenda in Sacramento that is heavy with unintended consequences, making the homeless problem much worse.

He notes the realignment bill, Proposition 47's change of a spate of felonies to misdemeanors, a bill limiting sending drug abusers back to prison, and a 2015 Supreme Court case that "limited a city's ability to criminalize panhandling."

Sacramento's approach to this problem is one of normalizing homelessness. The idea is to accept mass homelessness as just a part of any society. The thrust of the fight has been one of permissiveness and rejection of value judgments that might shame the homeless, or pressure them out of the homeless lifestyle.

In parallel, the Legislature has made the same arguments toward drug and alcohol addiction and criminality. It is up to the public to accept or reject this approach. It seems clear to me that to accept this, however, is to accept the recent increase in homelessness as a reality that is here to stay and likely to grow.

In any event, I contend that local government has little to do with the increase in homelessness. It is the California Legislature that has designed this problem and it will have to be the California Legislature that designs the solution.
Update:  Checking back later, the reference to "true root cause" is gone.  The headline is now "Why California Legislature deserves blame for increase in homelessness," probably a more apt title for the article, if less catchy.  The heading and lead paragraph of this post have been adjusted accordingly.


Decencyevolves: Actuam study beats punditry in determining the causes of social ills. This more complex analysis gives a better sense of why homelessness increased in the 1980s and is increasing again now. https://www.kcet.org/shows/socal-connected/the-rise-of-homelessness-in-the-1980s

We had an inmate of about 29 years of age, with some college credits,
who received extensive drug rehabilitation whilst at the jail.

5-day-per-week substance abuse classes, as well as AA & NA
meetings did he attend. We had him working at Dunkin
Donuts in N. Syracuse for months before release.

Upon release, he worked about 1 week at D&D, then disappeared
for 3 days. He was checked-on, his sole parent was of some
assistance, and he got back to work.

He told the Manager that he had been on a drug binge, and they
took him back. He lasted a few more days.

Some days later, a Corrections Officer reported that he was seen
living under a bridge ( homeless ).

His case managers know under which bridge he lives.
What should they do? ... ... ... ...

Is this a failure of society, or rather capitalism,
or perchance of uncaring conservatives?

Decencyevolves: this quote from the article I cited gives a sense of the causes:

“Most people see homelessness as a personal tragedy affecting those who cannot afford the cost of renting or owning a home. But why, in the early 1980s, did so many Americans find themselves homeless? Why did the accumulation of personal tragedies reach epidemic proportions at the same time across the nation?

The answer to these questions is rooted in both large-scale economic and political forces, as well as increasing personal vulnerability. Four interrelated dynamics were at play: declining personal incomes, loss of affordable housing, deep cuts in welfare programs, and a growing number of people facing personal problems that left them at high risk of homelessness.”

The stock of affordable housing has plummeted along with the assistance available for the poor and many people live just a paycheck away from ruin due to the failure of average and below average incomes to keep pace with productivity gains. Personal problems play a large role in who becomes homeless, but the lack of sack in housing markets and decreasing margin for error for the poor put many more people at risk of homelessness.

Although I agree with Mayor Wells that it is too simple to attribute ALL homelessness to a lack of services and resources, it is also too simple to attribute all homelessness to choice and moral turpitude. I volunteer for an organization that assists homeless youth and young adults, and the causes of homelessness among our participants are most commonly: 1) instability, abuse, or rejection at home (rejection being most commonly because the young person has "come out" as gay or trans), 2) mental health issues, 3) addiction, and/or 4) extreme scarcity of affordable housing in the area. Although there are (and always have been) people who choose to be homeless, that is most definitely not the norm in my experience.

There are indeed multiple causes, and one of the long-standing problems has been the assumption that "the homeless" are a single group of people with a single defining problem and therefore a single solution.

For starters, we need to recognize three groups, which have been called "the have nots, the cannots, and the will nots." The first group's main problem is economic, the second group's is mental illness, substance abuse, or both, and the third has made a lifestyle choice.

The article DE links to does acknowledge that deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill was a contributing factor, though it is skimpy on assessing the blame for that. It also notes that the cocaine epidemic was an important factor, without mentioning that failure to control our borders is a major reason for the flood of a drug that is nearly all imported. It does not acknowledge the third group.

Mayor Wells is right that the ill-advised policies he notes have made the problem worse, and that is an important contribution to the discussion.

Incidentally, I don't think his article can properly be called "punditry." According to Garner's Modern English Usage, "pundit" has two meanings. The original is "a wise, learned teacher." The second, and more common today, is "an acknowledged expert who is paid to opine about matters of public interest, esp. through the mass media." "By [the 1980s], pundit had come to be tinged with negative connotations--the sense often being that the person is not so much an acknowledged expert as a putative one."

None of that fits Mayor Wells. He is not claiming to be an "expert" in that sense but rather someone who is dealing with the problem and has practical insights to offer.

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