Homelessness in California: A Crisis That Needs More Attention
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Keywords: Homelessness, California, Public Youth, and Housing
California had close to 130,000 homeless individuals on any given day, as reported by Continuum of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and California accounts for 12% of the U.S. population but about 23% of the homeless population (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018a). California is known for its elite public colleges that attract minds from all over the world, but it also has the largest number of homeless students (roughly 246,000) in its public school data (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018a). Vagrancy laws that discriminate against homeless people must be addressed and work-training should be established to increase employment. This article will discuss the issue of homelessness in California, the reason for its predominance, how it affects the state, whom it affects predominantly, and achievements and challenges and will propose potential inventions to alleviate the crisis.
Homelessness is a tough issue to define in concrete terms as it involves many dynamic components; however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, 2019) has four specific categories to define homelessness at the federal level. This includes Literally Homeless, Imminent Risk of Homelessness, Homeless under other Federal statutes (unaccompanied youth under 25 years of age), and Fleeing/Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018b). Nighttime residence is a key factor the HUD uses to determine where a person fits in the categories. Literally, homelessness means “individual or family who lack regular nighttime residence,” and imminent risk of homelessness contains individuals who are about to become people within literally homeless category. Homelessness under other Federal statutes category contains people who do not fit the two categories above but are homeless by certain stipulations like experiencing persistent instability. The last category deals with domestic violence victims. The HUD also has particular definitions of homelessness for underage people, who fall under an umbrella term “Homeless children and youths” (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018b). In all, 16,000 youth in California fall under this term (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018a).
California has a long history of rising homelessness, which is the result of multiple factors. One of the explanations is the reduction of inpatient population in mental hospitals, and this has been steadily increasing for more than two decades (Quigley & Raphael, 2001). Furthermore, rise in income inequality is another major factor for homelessness. Between 2006 and 2010, eight of 25 counties with the most income inequality were in California (Bee, 2012). In “Homelessness in California,” the authors empirically test the proposition that growing income inequality is related to the increase in homelessness; they used the housing market data to test their hypothesis. They found a direct association between homelessness and income inequality (Quigley & Raphael, 2001). Housing crisis is another major cause of homelessness in California, a state with 10 of the least affordable housing markets and highest median home value in United States as of 2018 (Public Policy Institute of California, 2019). Housing and rent are least affordable in places where two-thirds of Californians live (Public Policy Institute of California, 2019). All these factors have played varying roles in increasing homelessness in California.
Challenges and Achievements
Homelessness affects many facets of one’s life in adverse ways. Homeless children are normally underimmunized or nonimmunized, have high lead in their bloodstream and high psychological stress levels, have stunted growth, are likely to have infectious diseases, and are addicted to drugs while having very low access to health care (Molnar, Rath, & Klein, 1990). When it comes to education levels, there is a difference of 33% in high school attendance rate and poor academic performance compared to youth with homes (Molnar et al., 1990). Lack of affordable housing, economic insecurity, and violence at home are some of the primary reasons for high prevalence of homelessness in California and the United States (Aratani, 2009). Unlike adults, children do not have higher level of education and in-demand skill set that they can leverage in the marketplace for high-paying jobs. California disproportionately carries the burden of homeless youth as well (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018a). However, the state has been trying to alleviate the adverse effects of homelessness in its youth. The McKinney–Vento Act is one of the most notable achievements to remove educational barriers that homeless children face daily. Funded by the Department of Education, it gives homeless youth the right to remain in one school, with transportation coverage and right to choose public school they attend. It has played a critical role in increasing public school enrollment and prevention of homelessness among youth (Julianelle & Foscarinis, 2003). However, a lack of knowledge of the McKinney–Vento Act among youth has been a major obstacle for its success (Ausikaitis et al., 2015). But California has still long way to go as the issues facing homeless youth are dire and need more resources such as improving health care access.
Veterans are also overrepresented in the homeless population in California (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2018a). Some key risk factors for this are substance abuse, mental health problems, lack of social support, and income-related variables such as military pay grade (Tsai & Rosenheck, 2015). Being Black and a veteran also significantly increased risk of homelessness (Fargo et al., 2012). For male veterans, those in the 45- to 54-year-old age group made up 41% of the homeless veterans and had the highest risk of becoming homeless. Chronic health conditions such as liver disease are predominant in the homeless veteran population (53%) and are associated with homelessness (Fargo et al., 2012). The government has not done much to prevent homelessness in veteran population over the long term. Although programs such as Veteran Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD) evaluation have helped homeless veterans to become stably housed, they have only addressed less than 10% of veteran population in California (United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 2017). VHPD should be funded more to expand its reach because the program has proven to be successful, but its finances are limiting it.
California has been trying to prevent homelessness by addressing its roots, as discussed above. More than half of the state’s tenant population is burdened by housing costs and spends 30% of income on housing costs. The Costa–Hawkins Rental Housing Act took effect in 1995 and controls rent prices (scrutiny against sudden increases) for tenants in major cities like Berkeley and Los Angeles (Singh, 2016). Costa–Hawkins tried to prevent homelessness among tenants, but this has backfired by reducing the supply of rental units because it incentivizes landlords to convert their property to other uses such as small businesses to maximize profit (Rosen, 2018). Furthermore, Costa–Hawkins deters additional private investment into the housing market (Rosen, 2018). The California Tenant Stability Act is like Costa–Hawkins and has put very specific restrictions such as rental increases have to be 5% plus inflation, which reduces evictions and foreclosure crises (Ochi, 2010). However, California needs to do more. The state must provide more financial incentives such as subsidies for private investment into the housing market in populous cities like Los Angeles to provide enough affordable rental units for the state.
Criminalization of homelessness is the major hurdle to effectively address the issue in the state. California has an illegal lodging code to cite homeless people who are camping and sleeping in public area. California cities have more anti-homeless laws than other U.S. cities; they restrict “vagrants,” that is, homeless people’s movement, and increase harassment by the local police during different times of the day. Anticamping laws and enforcement of anti-homeless laws exacerbate the crisis. Criminalization of homelessness has led to arrests based on a person’s homeless status rather than illegal actions or behavior (Fisher, Miller, Walter, & Selbin, 2015).
The research and statistics on homelessness in California clearly point out that the state should take more of an active role to reduce the prevalence of this crisis especially in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. The state must address the key factors that exacerbate the situation each year, such as housing costs that disproportionately affect the youth, homeless students, and veterans. California should also establish supportive programs such as work-training programs that teach in-demand skills to homeless people and help them achieve financial independence. California should avoid vagrancy laws in its major cities and promote a better image of homeless people, not criminalize them. The Golden State should leverage its large resources to mitigate homelessness and create innovative interventions with multiple parties that are evidence-based as existing programs are not enough.
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