A few years ago I bumped into a woman who used to participate in a job placement program I ran.
She was doing awesome. She was housed, employed, and active in recovery.
On this last point, as we talked, she dropped one of those pithy kernels of wisdom that seem so abundant in recovery communities:
My family had problems. I had a problem with that. And that was my problem.
Over the last decade I have had the opportunity to meet with thousands of community members concerned about homelessness. Three insights have emerged from these conversations:
Tragically, even with widespread agreement that other human beings should not be needlessly suffering on the streets of our country, people are. And they have been for the last 40 years.
This reality, which continues to trend in the wrong direction (2023 numbers), suggests our current approach is simply not working.
Similar to the unfortunate example of a person who has gone through a traumatic experience, to meaningfully address this societal tragedy, as a sector and a movement, we must:
I was born in 1986. Millennials like me – Americans born between approximately 1980 and 1996 – have never known a United States without homelessness. Seeing mentally ill, substance-dependent people living in impoverished conditions on the streets has simply become a normalized part of our day-to-day lives, particularly for those of us living in larger metropolitan areas.
Homelessness – or the lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence – has, of course, existed for a very long time. One could even make the case that for 95%+ of our species’ existence we were “homeless” hunter gathers wandering the wild continents of the Earth.
To equate modern homelessness to hunter gatherer tribes is obviously ridiculous. But for that statement to be absurd, that must mean there is something distinctive about the current manifestation of homelessness that we observe today.
Upon closer inspection, we see that there have actually been many "flavors" of homelessness throughout our nation’s history, each influenced by the unique socioeconomic circumstances of the time.
In the early 1600s, the first European colonists to arrive in the Americas were, strictly speaking, homeless.
In fact, patterns of colonization in the Americas were in part driven by homelessness in Europe. For powerful monarchies and joint stock companies, particularly the United Kingdom, the American colonies were envisioned as a dumping ground for England’s “surplus poor.”
Fast forward to the early 1800s, as the United States began to grow through the acquisition of new territory, westward expansion created a new opportunity for the landless and homeless. People who couldn’t afford land or didn’t have the connections to buy it still had to live somewhere, so they simply began living on the fringes of unsettled wilderness areas.
Established landholders typically didn’t mind this arrangement. Poor whites on the frontier created a buffer between “landed interests” and Native Americans. Once these initial squatters cleared frontier areas of the original people who were living there, wealthier individuals would formally acquire the land, yet again pushing the homeless and landless farther west.
Of course, westward expansion also created mass homelessness (and genocide) in the form of displacing Native Americans. Millions of people were removed from their ancestral lands during the 19th Century through a variety of utterly deplorable tactics: forced relocation efforts like the Trail of Tears, the government’s breaking of land sovereignty treaties, and the deliberate reduction of buffalo herds, which essentially starved people into moving.
Following these initial eras of homelessness, we then begin to observe periods that look a bit more like what we see today:
With westward expansion finally coming to a close at the end of the 19th Century, a new form of growth started sweeping the country: urbanization. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became quite common for rootless job seekers to travel from city to city, primarily on trains, in search of new economic opportunity. In 1906, it is estimated that the number of "hobos" in the United States had reached 500,000 (about 0.6% of the nation’s population at the time). By 1911, the number surged to over 700,000, which is even larger than the number of people experiencing homelessness today.
Following a decade of near exponential economic growth, the US stock market crashed in October of 1929, resulting in a deep financial depression. By the end of 1933, at the economy’s lowest point, 15 million Americans were unemployed, nearly 30% of the country’s banks had failed, home prices had fallen 67%, and about half of all residential mortgages were delinquent. In response, shanty towns (i.e., homeless encampments) started appearing all across the country. These areas became known as “Hoovervilles,” after President Herbert Hoover, who was widely blamed for the onset of the Great Depression.
In the mid-2010s, San Francisco Bay Area media outlets launched the "SF Homeless Project" to investigate the persistent and growing challenge of homelessness in the region.
When I first discovered this resource, what struck me the most was the timeframe. The reporting didn’t look back to the hobos at the end of the 1800s or the shantytowns during the Great Depression. Instead, it seemed to suggest that today’s homelessness was a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, some articles even had an exact date: 1982.
To quote from a Bay Area-based National Public Radio documentary called "To Have and Have Not":
Narrator: We are living in a time of strange economic contradictions. 12 million people are unemployed in our country, 1.3 million of them in California, more than 150,000 right here in the Bay Area. It hasn’t been this bad since the Great Depression.
Yet the stock market is booming. Venture capitalists are making millions of dollars over night in Silicon Valley video games. For a few, it is the best of times. For many more, it is the worst …
… in the past the homeless of San Francisco were invisible, or rather unnoticed by those with jobs and shelter. But by last fall it was impossible to ignore the hundreds of people huddled every night in the doorways of the Tenderloin and other rundown neighborhoods.
The emergency food line at St. Anthony’s has grown alarmingly, nearly 2,000 people a day come here to eat. And other emergency food, clothing and shelter charities in the Bay Area tell the same story. They’re swamped.
Service Provider: We have a lot more people with emotional problems. A lot of people have been dumped out of the mental health system, literally with a handful of Thorazine, and dumped on the street.
40 years later, some of the statistics might be a little bit different, but the two underlying themes above are just as true today: we are experiencing worsening economic inequality, and there a growing number of “sick” and vulnerable people who find themselves unsheltered in our communities.
While we might observe some characteristics or features that resemble previous eras of homelessness, it is critical to see that The Modern Homelessness Crisis is being shaped by fundamentally different issues.
To say this another way, as civic leaders, it is imperative that we look past the day-to-day and year-to-year headlines and instead diagnose the deeper systemic structures we are up against.
As systems theorist Daniel Kim describes in his “Iceberg” framework,
Events are the occurrences we encounter on a day-to-day basis … Patterns are the accumulated “memories” of events. When strung together as a series over time, they can reveal recurring trends … Systemic structures are the ways in which the parts of a system are organized. These structures actually generate the patterns and events we observe.
In short, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of long-term socioeconomic trends, including: rising housing costs (particularly rental housing), declining real wages, the ongoing impact of systemic racism, and insufficient health supports for people with mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and other disabling health conditions, have had the cumulative impact of reducing the economic capacity of the most vulnerable among us. This economic vulnerability, in turn, has made it much more likely that individual or household crises result in episodes of homelessness.
A full unpack of all of these underlying socioeconomic shifts is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, there are two resources you can utilize:
The rising cost of housing is a bedrock issue in this system. To put hard numbers to this, according to a study from Harvard University, between 1960 to 2016, adjusting for inflation, the median American rent payment rose 61% while the median renter’s income increased by only 5%.
While this trend is undeniable, it's not the full picture, and civic leaders working to end this crisis must familiarize themselves with a critical nuance.
At the risk of oversimplifying what is clearly a very complex experience, modern homelessness is generally manifesting in two ways:
For both ethical (i.e., helping the most vulnerable people) and public safety reasons (i.e., addressing the day-to-day street impacts of unsheltered homelessness), civic leaders must understand and prioritize chronic homelessness.
People experiencing chronic homelessness are some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, languishing unnecessarily on the streets for years, even decades. Studies have found that, on average, people experiencing long-term homelessness die 20+ years earlier than their housed peers, primarily from untreated chronic illnesses.
Importantly, this is also the type of homelessness, as exemplified by issues like encampment and disruptive public behavior, that tends to generate significant community concern. Sadly and ironically, it is exactly these negative community impacts that results in communities feeling as though people experiencing chronic homelessness are the least deserving of assistance.
It is critically important for civic leaders to understand the nuance around chronic homelessness, and we have created a second guide to further unpack the needs and nuances of effectively supporting people stuck in this vicious cycle.
The socioeconomic issues driving The Modern Homelessness are “what happened.” They are the underlying causes of the societal trauma that we call homelessness.
If this is what happened, the critical next question is how have we responded?
Even though these issues are playing out all across the country, since the dawn of The Modern Homelessness Crisis, local communities (cities, counties) have been largely left to their own devices to figure out what to do.
While there is some limited funding, policy guidance, and programmatic white papers from state and federal agencies, there has never been a strong, unified, or accountability-driven strategy binding and ensuring consistent and effective local responses.
This "localization" of homelessness responses is the meta problem. It is our unhealthy response to what happened.
There are three primary ways in which this unhealthy response manifests itself:
Because of insufficiently coordinated and enforced state and federal strategies for ending homelessness, the thousands of city, town, and county governments across our country are each independently responsible for addressing homelessness in their own local way.
To dramatically oversimplify, each government agency essentially has two options:
There are two big reasons why local leaders do not pursue Option A:
This second point is particularly important for our analysis, and if there is anywhere to examine the “local” vs. “non-local” question, it is the San Francisco Bay Area. As one of the most liberal and service-rich parts of the country, not to mention having fantastic year-round weather, the Bay Area would seemingly be a magnet for nationwide homelessness.
Seven of the nine Bay Area counties do, in fact, track the origin of an individual’s homelessness, and these studies consistently find that at least 70%, and in some cases close to 90%, of people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area were already living in their current county when they became homeless.
These findings have been further corroborated by long-term data from the State of California, which has shown that 96% of people experiencing homelessness throughout the state only access services in one community.
(If anything, the relatively higher rates of homelessness in Coastal California communities like the Bay Area are the result of a particularly strong concentration of the systemic forces detailed in the previous section.)
Given these statistics, I am always surprised by how certain community members are that the revolving faces they see on the street are people from other communities.
In reality, rather than people moving across communities, it is much more common to see movement within a community.
This was evidenced by an amazing, year-long story in the San Francisco Chronicle called "Seven Lives, Seven Paths, Little Change Seen."
As the City of San Francisco cracked down on unsheltered homelessness in one neighborhood, people simply shifted to a different neighborhood.
From each neighborhood’s perspective, it appeared that there were constantly new faces, but if you zoomed out even slightly, it was easy to see it was the same people moving within the same city.
Despite the data, the fear is real and must be overcome. And it is important to see that the localization of our response to homelessness makes this dynamic worse because it is not easy for civic leaders to see what is happening outside of their particular jurisdiction.
Encouragingly, the communities that are making the most progress around homelessness are those where local civic leaders are looking beyond their borders, identifying regional or national best practices, and then making sufficient local investments alongside their peers.
Over time, the term “[insert industry] industrial complex” has come to connote nefarious and self-serving tendencies within a given economic sector. It is:
A socioeconomic concept wherein businesses become entwined in social or political systems or institutions, creating or bolstering a profit economy from these systems. Such a complex is said to pursue its own financial interests regardless of, and often at the expense of, the best interests of society and individuals. Businesses within an industrial complex may have been created to advance a social or political goal, but mostly profit when the goal is not reached. The industrial complex may profit financially from maintaining socially detrimental or inefficient systems.
To be very clear, in all of the time I have been working to end homelessness, collaborating with hundreds if not thousands of colleagues, I have not once met a person who is “pro-homelessness.” There is no grand, corrupt conspiracy to perpetuate homelessness for the enrichment of those working in this space. Every person I have met in this field is genuine in their desire to help people and make a difference. And frankly, I think social workers and care providers should be more highly compensated, given the stress, demands, and importance of this work.
Nonetheless, on many occasions over the last decade, angry community members have alleged that my colleagues and I are in fact part of the “homeless industrial complex.”
While this insinuation certainly stings, in all fairness, the social service sector as an “industry” is not above reproach. According to famed systems thinker Donella Meadows:
The destruction [these archetypes] cause is often blamed on particular actors or events, although it is actually a consequence of system structure. Blaming, disciplining, firing, twisting policy levers harder, hoping for a more favorable sequence of driving events, tinkering at the margins — these standard responses will not fix structural problems. That is why I call these archetypes “traps.”
No one wants homelessness, but over time, because society has failed to take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening in the first place, a large and robust homeless service system has emerged to try to help people regain housing.
Unfortunately, as anyone who has worked in this field will know all too well, structural inefficiencies often emerge as these social service systems grow, which makes solving homelessness even harder than it already is. This is primarily driven by a lack of coordinated and data-informed investments.
There is a final dimension to localization, which in many ways is the core problem the resources on this website are trying to address.
Because we have so intensely localized our response to solving homelessness:
Whether it is government or nonprofits, this dynamic is compounded by the fact that the individual human beings in these organizations are constantly changing too and, with them, the ideas and views on how to address this issue.
As Nithya Raman, LA City Councilmember and Chair of the City’s Homelessness Taskforce, put in the summer of 2023, "We have 15 different Council Districts and 15 different approaches to homelessness."
A former colleague who used to work for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) once framed it to me even more bluntly:
We are never going to solve homelessness in Los Angeles because it's like the tide. Every few years a new group of leaders washes in with "new" insights and "new" ideas. After a few years, after they finally ascend the learning curve to understand what really works, they wash out, a whole new group comes in, and the process starts again.
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