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The Sources and Consequences of Urban Homelessness


Be forewarned; this is going to be the kind of post that you may find irritating because it’s really just about working through a lot of ideas on something that I find puzzling. It’s the kind of post that I’ve written less over the years as experts have tended to find their own lanes to stay in, but frankly I think it’s the kind that we should all feel a little bit more comfortable in writing.

Most everyone agrees that homelessness (the euphemism “unhoused” seems like a cruel joke to me) is growing more severe. Here’s an account of the demographics of homelessness. The homeless community is mostly male (although not overwhelmingly), disproportionately Black or Hispanic (although not overwhelming), and IS overwhelmingly 25 or older. Homelessness is not uniformly distributed across the United States but seems to be growing in most urban areas. While much of the discussion of homelessness has focused on the West Coast, I can say that homeless communities have grown enormously in visibility in both Lexington and Louisville over the past few years. This suggests both a systemic national problem and one that varies regionally in ways that may be consequential for policy.

On the question of whether our cities (and especially the West Coast cities that LGMers most adore) are in crisis, it feels like yielding that something isn’t right in San Francisco-Portland-Seattle, and that the Something That’s Wrong is different and worse than it was ten or even five years ago, is akin to surrendering a debating point to GOP critics of urban life and urban governance. It’s surely true that some arguments aren’t being made in good faith and some interlocutors should be ignored, but there also seems to be an emerging consensus that Something Is In Fact Wrong and Is Getting Worse. The San Francisco situation feels pretty grim, Portland felt grim and lifeless the last time I visited (summer of 2021) and lots of folks that I know in both Portland and Seattle are very much of the feeling that Things Are Not Okay. I should add here that I have absolute contempt for the attitude that dangerous grittiness is simply the Priced that We Have to Pay in order to enjoy the fruits of an urban area; this has always felt to me to be an excuse to do nothing rather than a description of an actual trade-off.

So, some thoughts on causation and the solutions that various causes seem to demand:

  • Housing: As Scott has capably argued, I don’t think that there’s any meaningful question that the core issue with urban homelessness is the rapid increase in rent and property values. These in turn have been generated by the shift to understanding housing as an investment asset rather than as a depreciating asset for the bulk of American homeowners. This creates an incredibly strong incentive on the part of existing homeowners to limit the increase in housing stock, thus limiting supply and driving the value of their own investments up. Especially in liberal urban areas (and most American cities are liberal) this naked financial interest is cloaked with an ever-changing set of euphemisms (“you’ll ruin the neighborhood character,” “we can’t give in to greedy developers,” “techbros are ruining everything,” “I can’t believe you’re even considering building on Occupied Duwamish land,” “renovating that apartment in the neighborhood that’s lost 70% of its residents in the last three decades is GENTRIFICATION,” “We can’t build our way out of CAPITALISM” and similar such), but the core issue is the same; new housing hurts the financial interests of existing homeowners, who in many cases have made their home the central investment of their financial portfolio. New housing of any kind has a depressive effect on housing prices, and housing that appeals to folks on the margins of homelessness has a variety of negative externalities that put downward pressure on local property values. Because of the nature of localism in American politics, there are enough veto points that even a few NIMBYs are capable of severely retarding the construction of new housing stock.
  • Collapse of Rural America: Housing prices may be the primary culprit, but it bears mention that there are wide swaths of the country that have a) low housing prices, and b) low unemployment. It may sound churlish to ask “why doesn’t the Seattle homeless community simply move to rural Nebraska” … but there has to be a reason that the Seattle homeless community doesn’t move to rural Nebraska, where housing costs virtually nothing and the unemployment rate has been under 3% basically forever. The homeless populations of the big Western cities are by and large not from those cities; they have migrated there (like lots of other people) for a variety of reasons and choose to stay there for those and other reasons. The answers may well be that rural Nebraska is boring, that the jobs available are unpleasant and dead end even if they put a roof over the head, that there’s a skill disconnect (although I doubt this), or that the jobs available aren’t regarded as culturally appropriate for the demographic in question (with agricultural labor jobs now being filled largely by Central American migrant labor).
  • Culture: It is apparently controversial to note the existence of communities persistent communities of homeless who are, on a collective level, resistant to interventions that would increase employment and reduce transience. These communities are most evident in the West, although there are linkages across the country. It’s a culture of vagabondage that has deep roots in American culture and in the culture of the West specifically. To say it is a culture does not mean that it doesn’t wax or wane depending on economic, climatic, and social conditions. There are groups of people who want to use municipal resources but who aren’t, at least in the short term, at all interested in changing their circumstances. There are also, as Erik has alluded to and as became clear from the McNeely case in New York, communities of homeless who aren’t part of this culture but are nevertheless very difficult to reach with conventional services because of drug use and mental illness. This group is the one most often blamed for violence and disruption in the urban core, and are often the subjects of violence.
  • Drugs: I don’t think it’s that hard to develop an argument that changes in patterns of drug use have helped produce increases in urban homelessness. We know that changes in supply have affected patterns of opiate use in a lot of populations in the country, producing a significant increase in death. I’ve seen it argued that shifts in the nature of the meth, fentanyl, and heroin that is apparently omnipresent in homeless communities has helped to broadly reduce interest in and capacity for regular work/housing/etc. But I’ve also seen this claim get a lot of pushback on the basis that drug abuse has been around for a long time and that the causal connective tissue is hard to figure out. There’s also an obvious feedback issue; addiction may produce homelessness but homelessness plausibly also produces addiction. Furthermore, it’s important to note that if drugs are the big issue, then the problem can be solved by neither prohibition nor legalization. The former solves very little and while the latter stops some of the damage associated with violent coercion, it doesn’t offer easy ways on how to manage the effects of widespread, chronic addiction.
  • Mental Illness Treatment Strategies: It’s not necessarily obvious that mental illness is becoming more widespread or severe (reporting over time runs into a lot of dreadful data problems that make temporal comparisons difficult) but it’s commonly argued that the turn towards non-coercive methods for managing mental illness has exacerbated the homelessness problem. The shift against large-scaled coercive institutionalization (whatever its downsides) has been going on for some time and while I’m not sure how well it can get us to where we are now, the argument that turning the mentally ill out and putting them (unmonitored) on the street seems to have some analytical heft.
  • COVID: The Covid pandemic and the consequent effort to suppress it were deeply disruptive to social and political order on a large scale, especially among marginal populations. In some cases this meant the effective suspension of city services for homeless support, spurring internal migrations of the homeless population and leading to changes in the concentration of that population. In Kentucky, for example, many small municipalities responded to the pandemic by rounding up the homeless and putting them on buses for Lexington or Louisville. Pandemic recovery has generated a lot of job, but not necessarily with the kind of skill- and geographical- dispersion that could make much of an impact on the homeless community. Social disruption (isolation, loss of family members, loss of community connective tissue, drug use) could also be expected to have a short and medium term impact on the size and behavior of homeless communities. Note that a cause that is temporary may still have effects that are long term; covid may have wrought changes in interpersonal and community dynamics that make addressing homelessness that much more difficult.
  • Municipal Policy: I don’t know how solid the case is that municipal policing policy and treatment services have a big impact on the size of homeless populations. It seems to me that even in the places reputed for having homeless-friendly municipal policies the policies themselves still feel fairly draconian. But certainly folks in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco complain a lot about the disinterest of city authorities (backed by liberal/progressive electoral majorities) in enforcing ordinances against homeless communities and the disinterest of police and prosecutors in attacking petty crime. To the extent that’s true it seems likely that these areas would attract homeless communities looking for relatively hands-off policing and residential policy. Given a broader homeless population that is widely networked (a phone is much cheaper than rent) and that is at least somewhat mobile the implications are obvious; cities that develop a reputation for being (relatively) friendly to the homeless will necessarily have growing problems of homelessness.

So… let this serve as a thread for open discussion of where we are in terms of American homelessness and what directions we might take moving forward.

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