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 "The Modern Homelessness Crisis"

How did we get here?

Our Nation's Many Eras of Homelessness

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.

Rather than being a constant and unchanging phenomenon, homelessness in the United States has emerged, disappeared, and returned many different times, with each era shaped by unique socioeconomic conditions.

Most recently, that has looked like:

"Hobos" and Migratory Labor

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.

The Great Depression

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. 

What is striking about this resource is the timeframe. The reporting doesn't look back to the hobos at the end of the 1800s or the shantytowns during the Great Depression. Instead, it suggests that today’s homelessness is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, some articles even have 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 remain: we are experiencing worsening economic inequality, and there a growing number of “sick” and vulnerable people who find themselves unsheltered in our most thriving metropolitan areas.

"The Modern Homelessness Crisis."

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, especially in our country's most expensive rental housing markets.


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A Critical Nuance 

At the risk of oversimplifying what is clearly a very complex experience and phenomenon, it is critical to recognize that The Modern Homelessness Crisis is generally manifesting in two ways: 

  • For most people, homelessness is a relatively short-term occurrence lasting a few weeks or months, and it is primarily driven by financial and relational crises (e.g., increasing housing costs, eviction, job loss, divorce, domestic violence). 
  • For a small but persistent minority, it is a long-term experience exacerbated by disabling health conditions (e.g., physical health, mental illness, addiction, traumatic brain injuries). This type of homelessness is called "chronic homelessness."

Significant Vulnerability

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 and overdoses.

Significant Impact

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 result in communities feeling as though people experiencing chronic homelessness are the least deserving of assistance. 

Failing to distinguish between short-term and "chronic" homelessness results in many predictable issues:

 There are a number of predictable problems that arise from failing to distinguish between short-term and "chronic"homelessness: 

  • Adding programs and services that don’t address chronic homelessness will not necessarily improve conditions on the street, thus making street conditions even worse.
  • If short-term homelessness isn’t sufficiently addressed, it can lead to chronic homelessness. This is becoming particularly acute for seniors who are falling into homelessness.
  • Throwing “short-term” serving at chronic homelessness often leads to future returns to homelessness.
  • Throwing “long-term” solutions at short-term homelessness is wasteful and inefficient (e.g., should a one-time job loss lead to lifelong subsidized housing?).

Perhaps more importantly than any of this, however, is that failing to distinguish between between short-term and "chronic" homelessness is driving completely unproductive polarization around how we should respond.

Many people believe homelessness is primarily a housing problem.

Many people believe homelessness is primarily a mental health and addiction problem.

Both sides are right. Our nation needs more affordable housing. It also needs better resources and strategies for helping people with behavioral health crises.

The question is - why have we been unable to progress on either?



Fundamentally, all of this history points to the fact that our sector is trying to solve a crisis we did not create. The problem is, our response is not working.

2. A Failed Response

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