It is one of the basic functions of government to be constantly assessing things, which for governments, usually means counting things, or people.
Most things are easy to count, and so are some people: residents of a building or town, attendees at a ballpark or in a credible round-numbers way, those present on the Washington Mall for a Presidential Inauguration.
Some of the hardest people to count are the homeless. For one thing, you never know when you’re going to find them, or come across them more than once. For another, many homeless people don’t want to be counted. For those and other reasons, the US Government count of homeless people is widely believed to be a serious underestimate.
The latest Federal court showed 555,000 Americans were homeless on the night it was made. This is the first year since the Great Recession that the number had risen, by a bare 7/10th of 1%.
This estimate flies in the face of more local calculations. Homelessness in Los Angeles went up 23% between 2016 and 2017, (by itself, in raw numbers, twice the national increase noted by HUD). In New York City the increase was 4.1% while in the west, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland all reported surges of varying sizes.
In a statement attached to the Federal homelessness report, Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said: “This is not a federal problem – it’s everybody’s problem.”
There is a well-known maxim, “If it’s everybody’s problem, it’s nobody’s problem.”
Which, if Carson really means “nobody should do nothing,” that would actually do less damage than the Trump-GOP tax law which cut the credits that underwrote much of the low-cost housing America’s built over the last 30 years.
The housing shortage is one reason for rising homelessness, a second is the gig economy, its low wage scales and few benefits for workers, a third is the squeezed budgets of state and local social service agencies, who a few years ago, had more success in keeping people in their homes, or at least off the streets. And pardon me, but I see a 4th driver of homelessness headed down the road: the shrinking numbers of people with health insurance, and the shrinking coverage many of them are being encouraged to buy predicts hundreds more families thrown into destitution by an unreimbursed medical situation.
The Canadian lawyer Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing recently toured the San Francisco Bay area, visiting homeless people and assessing facilities and made 2 judgments.
One, that the spike in homelessness on America’s Pacific Coast was not a sign of an increase in people with personal problems, but a systemic failure of national policies.
And two, that neither living with, nor ignoring the homelessness crisis was good for the American people.
Citing stories of sweeps of homeless encampments that destroyed or disappeared people’s possessions, laws against sharing food in public spaces, demonstrations against proposed shelters from the Bronx to Silicon Valley, Ms Farha said: “There’s a cruelty here that I don’t think I’ve seen.”
Alastair Gee is the homelessness editor of The Guardian based in San Francisco. He previously wrote for The New York Times, The New Yorker online, The Guardian, The Economist and other publications. He was also the Monocle correspondent in San Francisco. In 2016, he was named a Falling Walls fellow, and joined the board of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at Cambridge he lived in Moscow for four years, and was an editor at The Moscow Times.
SEE ALSO STORIES BY CHARLOTTE SIMMONDS OF THE GUARDIAN AND JOEL BERG OF HUNGER-FREE AMERICA also listed at davemarash.com.