Unsheltered In The Land Of Plenty
Bloomberg Businessweek Middle East|December 16, 2018

Thousands live in the streets in America’s richest cities. Blame rising housing costs but also government inaction

Noah Buhayar and Esmé E. Deprez

It was just after 10 p.m. on an overcast September night in Los Angeles, and L. was tired from a long day of class prep, teaching, and grading papers. So the 57-year-old anthropology professor fed her Chihuahua-dachshund mix a freeze-dried chicken strip, swapped her cigarette trousers for stretchy black yoga pants, and began to unfold a set of white sheets and a beige cotton blanket to make up her bed.

But first she had to recline the passenger seat of her 2015 Nissan Leaf as far as it would go—that being her bed in the parking lot she’d called home for almost three months. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was playing on her iPad as she drifted offfor another night. “Like sleeping on an airplane— but not in first class,” she said. That was in part by design. “I don’t want to get more comfortable. I want to get out of here.”

L., who asked to go by her middle initial for fear of losing her job, couldn’t afford her apartment earlier this year after failing to cobble together enough teaching assignments at two community colleges. By July she’d exhausted her savings and turned to a local nonprofit called Safe Parking L.A., which outfits a handful of lots around the city with security guards, port-a- potties, Wi-Fi, and solar-powered electrical chargers. Sleeping in her car would allow her to save for a deposit on an apartment. On that night in late September, under basketball hoops owned by an Episcopal church in Koreatown, she was one of 16 people in 12 vehicles. Ten of them were female, two were children, and half were employed.

The headline of the press release announcing the results of the county’s latest homeless census strikes a note of progress: “2018 Homeless Count Shows First Decrease in Four Years.” In some ways that’s true. The figure for people experiencing homelessness dropped 4 percent, a record number got placed in housing, and chronic and veteran homelessness fell by double digits. But troubling figures lurk. The homeless population is still high, at 52,765— up 47 percent from 2012. Those who’d become homeless for the first time jumped 16 percent from last year, to 9,322 people, and the county provided shelter for roughly 5,000 fewer people than in 2011.

All this in a year when the economy in L.A., as in the rest of California and the U.S., is booming. That’s part of the problem. Federal statistics show homelessness overall has been trending down over the past decade as the U.S. climbed back from the Great Recession, the stock market reached all-time highs, and unemployment sank to a generational low. Yet in many cities, homelessness has spiked.

It’s most stark and visible out West, where shortages of shelter beds force people to sleep in their vehicles or on the street. In Seattle, the number of “unsheltered” homeless counted on a single night in January jumped 15 percent this year from 2017—a period when the value of Amazon. com Inc., one of the city’s dominant employers, rose 68 percent, to $675 billion. In California, home to Apple, Facebook, and Google, some 134,000 people were homeless during the annual census for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in January last year, a 14 percent jump from 2016. About two-thirds of them were unsheltered, the highest rate in the nation.

At least 10 cities on the West Coast have declared states of emergency in recent years. San Diego and Tacoma, Wash., recently responded by erecting tents fit for disaster relief areas to provide shelter for their homeless. Seattle and Sacramento may be next.

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