The ranks of the homeless are swelling thanks to the economic fallout of the coronavirus. In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller reports that more middle-class citizens are struggling to afford a place to live. Homelessness now affects nearly one in five hundred Americans— unthinkable just a few years ago:
“As a crisis, it’s insidious, because its victims rarely plunge toward the abyss; they slide. Maybe you’ve been couch surfing in between jobs and you overstay your welcome. Maybe you’ve been in Airbnbs while apartment hunting and the search is harder than expected. Maybe…you lived on the momentum of a private dream until you had a reason to put down roots. Camping, couch surfing, digital nomad-ing—all these things are seen as normal middle-class activities, so the line between being without a home for now and being homeless is thin.”
Heller notes the stark financial reality in the Bay Area, which has one of the nation’s greatest income disparities.
“In San Francisco today, people who earn less than eighty-two thousand dollars a year—or a hundred and seventeen thousand for a family of four—are considered low-income. (The figures for individuals in New York and Seattle are, respectively, sixty-four thousand dollars and sixty-seven thousand dollars.) The city’s minimum wage is $15.59 an hour, which means that a minimum-wage earner working forty-hour weeks with no vacations will gross $32,427.20 a year—far less than the median rent for a one-bedroom. Working a job in town while living in a distant suburb adds transit costs. Thanks to a combination of gentrification, tech incomes based on the accumulation of equity, more people are now living in the shelters, sleeping on the sidewalks, or gathering in tent cities.”
Many of these folks are trying very get back on their feet but are hampered by warring policies.
Heller describes the Big Data approach that puts everyone into the system and refers them to agencies across the city—often resulting in a catch-22 where San Francisco’s homeless are so busy trying to get some basic services that they no longer have time to search for work. Next, he shows how local community efforts are big-hearted and effective, but dependent on the patchwork efforts of churches and non-profits, so certain much-needed services fall through the cracks.
One of the biggest problems is providing enough mental health support and the other is helping the hardcore homeless to get off drugs.
Heller summarizes the problem this way:
“The high number of mentally ill people on the streets—about half the homeless population, by some estimates—is often blamed on “deinstitutionalization”: a process that began in the fifties and intensified in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter, worried about conditions in mental institutions, funded community care centers instead. The next year, President Reagan cut that funding, permanently stranding patients between the old and the new models of care. But the streets themselves are bad for mental health, too. If you’ve ever been on a trip where you got bumped off your flight and you’re stuck in an airport, with no hotels—well, two days of that and we’re broken, right? We get home and are, like, I can’t even think! I need a glass of wine!” Lydia Bransten, of St. Anthony’s, told me. This is people’s life from day to day to day out here. They don’t know when the plane is coming.’”
Heller interviews the homeless, the community projects directors who are trying to help them one-by-one, and the city officials who take a whole systems approach to the problem, from providing social services to building new shelters and permanent housing. While the city is a long way from a solution, San Francisco serves as a kind of petri dish for the rest of the country:
“San Francisco spends more per capita on homelessness solutions than nearly any other U.S. city—three hundred and thirty million dollars a year. That sum reflects an eighty-five-per-cent increase from 2005 to 2015 when homelessness rose by thirteen percent. It’s puzzling that so much funding did so little. But the puzzle also makes San Francisco, a city that has tried some obvious things, a great place to think through more focussed solutions.”
The most powerful segments in this sweeping article are Heller’s portraits of the homeless people he encountered including D. who worked for years as a broadcast journalist until her partner got colon cancer and died. Afterwork she got a job a classroom aide for special-need students in San Francisco but a hard time finding an affordable apartment. “When I met D, her days began at 6 a.m., on a mat on a shelter floor. She dropped her son off at fifth grade, then went to her classroom to teach. D. is one of many homeless San Franciscans who can “pass” as housed as they go about their public lives.”
Then there was Hickson, “who was brought up in a military family, on the gritty south side of Houston, with an I.Q. higher than both of his parents’. “He left home at eighteen with his best friend, who had terminal cancer. They hit the road, staying no more than three days in any one place because Hickson wanted him to see as much of America as possible. When his friend died, everything went dark for a while. Hickson kept travelling. He visited all forty-eight contiguous states, and, when he realized that he’d mostly seen just gas stations, he visited all forty-eight again, camping in national parks.”
At St. Anthony’s Foundation in the Tenderloin, Heller met a young guy “who gave me an elegant précis of Niels Bohr’s work in quantum mechanics, and then told me that, while meditating, he once left his body to commune with angels…The unhoused population in the dining room included loudly dressed middle-aged men, young people with dangling earbuds, and elderly Asian women wearing polyester slacks.”
Heller’s article has an underlying message—our common humanity. While some of the stories of hardship are extreme, many of them are tales of ordinary middle-class folks who couldn’t afford to live near their place of work or suddenly lost their jobs. In short, we have met the homeless and learned that they are us.