How We Got Here: The State of Modern Homelessness (Part Two)

This is part two of our limited series on the housing crisis. In part one, we explored the history of zoning in the Bay Area. Here, we dive into what modern homelessness looks like. In upcoming editions, we'll continue exploring the consequences of zoning, the shelter system, and what we need to create a better future for our communities.

Grants Pass is a small town in the deep-red south of Oregon. A few years ago, authorities passed a number of harsh laws that effectively criminalized being homeless. The several hundred unhoused folks who call Grants Pass home were subjected to constant harassment, fines, and jail time. One woman interviewed by Invisible People has received thirty $300 tickets in the space of eighteen months. 

Why not go to a shelter? Well, the only shelter in Grants Pass has two mandatory church services per day, bans sex and drugs (including nicotine and alcohol), and compels residents to work for free. In other words, Grants Pass has no adequate shelter. 

In 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals barred the enforcement of these anti-homeless laws. Cities could not punish people for being homeless if there was no shelter for them to go to. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Grants Pass was supported by two dozen states and a number of other local authorities, many of them Democrat. (It was also supported by that aforementioned shelter.)

On Friday June 29, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in favor of Grants Pass. The Eighth Amendment did not, in fact, protect homeless people from being punished for the crime of sleeping outside. 

Justice Sotomayor issued a blistering dissent. She noted that people become homeless for many reasons, almost always outside of their control. A significant number of people, she wrote, are just “one unexpected medical bill away from being unable to pay rent.” “Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime,” she argued. “For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless. That is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed welcomed the ruling. She announced that the city would “not allow those who reject offers of help to remain where they are.” Instead, the city could impose citations and “significant penalties.” Breed also refused to rule out arresting people.

“No amount of arrests will lead people off the streets,” stated Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director for San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “It just exacerbates homelessness.”

The bipartisan consensus, shared by supposedly progressive cities like San Francisco, is that punitive policies are a necessary part of any response to homelessness. In reality, criminalizing homelessness makes it harder for people to get off the street, and often costs more than simply housing people would. 

Criminalizing homelessness also rests on the assumption that homeless people deserve to be punished. That’s an ideological assumption and a legal one; the Eighth Amendment, which forms the basis of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, is meant to protect people from being punished for something out of their control. The Supreme Court didn’t go as far as to say that people could be punished for their status — rather than their conduct — but it did decide that the Eighth Amendment did not protect homeless people from policies like those in Grants Pass.

In the previous issue of this limited series on the housing crisis, we met Couper, a street medic in San Francisco who became homeless after an injury forced her to retire from her job as a firefighter. Her story is more representative of the millions of Americans who experience homelessness every year than you might think.

In this issue, we’ll explore what that story looks like in San Francisco. Along the way, we’ll dispel some of the most common myths surrounding homelessness, from the idea that homeless people are dangerous to the notion that they could choose to leave the streets at any time.

From housed to unhoused

If you live in California, you need to earn about $38 per hour (almost $80,000 per year) in order to reasonably afford a modest one-bedroom apartment going at a fair market rent of $1,989 per month. In San Francisco, where the median rent for a one-bedroom unit is over $2,800, the housing wage (how much you must earn to afford housing) is much higher — $54 per hour. For context, the minimum wage in SF is a little over $18, and in July will rise to $18.67.

Thanks to the factors discussed in the previous issue — anti-growth zoning laws, time-consuming and costly review processes, a lack of funding for state housing, and so on — housing is moving further and further out of reach for many people.

According to the Census Bureau, about a third of all households in the Bay Area are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. About half of all rental households in San Francisco are rent-burdened, which means spending more than 30% of gross income on rent specifically. 

Nearly a quarter of all renters in the Bay Area are severely burdened, which means they spend more than half of their income on rent. 

Housing burdens disproportionately affect people of color and female-led households. It’s also more burdensome for people with less money – half of a minimum-wage paycheck is far less than half of a middle-class salary. Research shows that people confronted with impossible housing costs will take a range of measures to avoid becoming homeless – packing multiple families into the same apartment, crashing on a friend’s couch, putting up with unsafe housing, or stints in motels.

According to a recent study by UCSF, less than a third of homeless people in California entered homelessness from a leaseholding situation. Instead, they navigated successively less stable, lower-quality living situations until they had exhausted all of their options.

About half of homeless people in California entered homelessness from a non-leaseholder situation. That doesn’t mean they weren’t paying rent; the majority of them were. Of those paying rent, 41% were severely rent burdened. 

People who became homeless from a non-leaseholder situation received a median warning of one day before they lost their housing. Leaseholders had a median warning time of 10 days.

The majority of homeless Californians included in this study were forced into homelessness by one or multiple discrete events that were completely out of their control. That might be a loss of income. It could also be a health event. Or it might have been some kind of social issue, like an abusive partner. 

More than a third of those surveyed were in their first episode of homelessness. (For leaseholders, the proportion was even higher, at 47%.) Their median age was 41. 

Demographics of homelessness

Homelessness is far closer to you than you might be comfortable believing. Many of those surveyed by the UCSF and interviewed by Invisible People had everything — partner, family, house, job — and never thought they’d end up on the streets. These individuals came from all kinds of backgrounds but ended up in the same place. A run of bad luck is all it takes to take everything away.

Anyone can become homeless. Homeless people, then, aren’t a monolith, except for the fact that they don’t have housing. 

That being said, there are important trends to note. According to one Gallup Poll, most people conceive of the “homeless” as adult individuals. That only accounts for about 70% of homeless people. Almost 30% are families, usually a mother with children. Tens of thousands of homeless people are classified as unaccompanied youths. Significant proportions of these people — men, women, and minors — took to the streets to escape a violent situation.

While white people make up a significant share of the homeless population, they are actually underrepresented; people of color are overrepresented. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of homelessness, followed by American Indians and Alaska Natives, and then Black Americans. 

Homeless people are also getting older. The average age has risen from 30 in the 1990s to 50 today. Of those aged 50 and over who enter homelessness in San Francisco, almost half are doing so for the first time.

It’s not hard to see why this is. The monthly SSI payment in California is $1,113. An affordable rent for a recipient, then, would be $334 or less. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place in San Francisco going for $334 per week, let alone per month.

Certain health problems, like mental health issues and addiction, are overrepresented among the homeless population. In one recent YouGov poll, Americans put them as the number one cause of homelessness.

It’s true that these struggles can make it harder to maintain housing. A large majority of homeless people themselves blame addiction and mental health for homelessness. But where these are the primary reasons cited by housed people, they aren’t the top factors cited by unhoused people — that’s the lack of affordable housing. 

Criminalization of the vulnerable 

For decades, US public policy has followed a “housing first” methodology, at least in theory. This practice focuses on getting people into housing before focusing on any other issues they might be facing. As we’ll discuss in a later issue, housing first has been used to great success in countries like Finland, and is overwhelmingly popular among Americans — even Republicans.

The idea is intuitive. Mental health struggles, addiction — these are hard enough to tackle even with stable housing. Doing so on the street is often impossible.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Being on the street pushes people to drugs, to alcohol; it causes and exacerbates serious mental illness; it worsens existing conditions and causes new ones to arise. 

People who haven’t experienced homelessness usually don’t fully understand just how stressful it is, how scary being on the streets can be. 

Without anywhere to go, you are utterly vulnerable. Last year, for instance, San Francisco was scandalized when it became clear that a former fire commissioner might be responsible for a spate of bear spray attacks on homeless people. This sort of violence is more common than you might think. From 1999 to 2013, the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded almost 1,500 acts of violence against homeless people by housed perpetrators specifically. Hundreds of these attacks resulted in death. Who knows how many other acts went unreported.

Homeless people are also routinely harassed, abused, and even killed by the state. In cities like San Francisco, this usually comes in the form of sweeps, which are justified as a means to encourage — or force — people to accept help. SF is currently battling a lawsuit trying to stop it from sweeping its homeless, which points out, among other things, that these sweeps happen even when there are no shelter beds available. The city sees no problem with that.

Sweeps are dehumanizing. Homeless people often have their possessions confiscated and thrown away. The Stolen Belongings Project in San Francisco has documented some of the items destroyed in sweeps: the ashes of loved ones; identity documents; equipment to survive harsh weather. 

Homeless people are also frequently jailed for the crime of being homeless. Vagrancy, loitering, sleeping in public, and other criminalized acts are often impossible for homeless people to avoid. As Justice Sotomayor explained during the Supreme Court hearing on the Grants Pass case in April, it’s not like a beach goer who falls asleep under a blanket will be arrested for doing so. These laws are intended to clear homeless people from the streets.

Arrests expose homeless people to the horrors of the US carceral system. They also undo any progress these individuals might have made. One person recently interviewed by Invisible People in Miami recounted how his arrest for simply being on the street caused him to lose his job, bringing him back to square one. Before square one, actually, as an ever-lengthening criminal record makes it more difficult to pick yourself back up.

Homeless people are thus stereotyped as dangerous criminals.  In 2022, 64 percent of San Franciscans said they felt less safe in the city. Of those who felt less safe, 71% blamed homelessness. One study showed that people did commit crime more frequently after becoming homeless — but only those aforementioned crimes that are unavoidable for a homeless person. Once housing was acquired, crime rates fell sharply. 

Homelessness itself is also often connected with crime, even though data doesn’t show a connection between the two.

A decade ago, the US admitted that it might be violating international human rights law by its punitive treatment of homeless people. In 2018, the Human Rights Committee formally recognized the criminalization of homelessness as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

It’s not just cruel — it’s counterintuitive. Punishing people for being homeless doesn’t help them at all. Nevertheless, criminalization continues to spread.

Being homeless is hard enough as it is. The median period spent homeless in San Francisco is 22 months. That’s far longer than the single day it took many people to find themselves without a home.

In many cases, like Grants Pass, homeless people literally have nowhere to go. In San Francisco, there are far fewer shelter beds than there are homeless individuals. But there are shelters. 

We haven’t mentioned them yet because they deserve an issue of their own. In San Francisco, especially, the shelter system is byzantine at best and downright damaging at worst. From rules meaning you can’t actually check yourself into a shelter to widespread mistreatment and abuse, shelters can often be worse than the street. That should give you an idea of just how bad we’re talking. 

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