Homelessness in America Has Reached Unprecedented Proportions and Rising

The number of homeless people in the US has risen this year for the first time in seven years | Experts attribute the sudden surge to a booming West Coast economy an unaffordable housing

Homelessness in America Has Reached Unprecedented Proportions and Rising

A sudden surge in America’s homeless population is fast becoming a major cause for worry for concerned authorities.

New estimates released on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in its annual Point-in-Time report show that close to 554,000 people are living homeless lives in the United States.

The count, which is already one percent higher than the previous year, could well have gone up even further as the tallies were conducted back in January.

What is even more distressing is the fact that some 193,000 of these people do not even have access to nightly shelter and are staying in tents, vehicles, and even crashing out on street corners, alleys, and other godforsaken places. This, again, is a nine percent increase in the number of unsheltered people from two years ago.

West Coast cities, including Seattle, Sacramento, San Diego, and Los Angeles, are the major contributors to this sudden surge in homelessness in the country. In Los Angeles alone, there are around 55,000 homeless destitute – a mind-boggling 25 percent jump in a single year.

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Long-term homelessness has also risen sharply – up by 12 percent from the previous year.

Experts, non-profit organizations, and even the homeless themselves believe that a booming West Coast economy and the consequential spike in rents is the major, if not the only, cause for the current state of affairs. Rents have become unaffordable for lower-income groups who until not too long ago were able to find affordable accommodation.

“The improved economy is a good thing, but it does put pressure on the rental market, which does put pressure on the poorest Angelenos,” said Peter Lynn, head of the Los Angeles homelessness agency. “Clearly we have an outsize effect on the national homelessness picture.”

HUD Secretary Ben Carson says that on a national level the number of homeless people has come down by 13 percent from the 2010 numbers and that some communities have almost done away with the scourge, particularly among veterans.

However, despite the continuing efforts of the government as well as NGOs to house veterans, their numbers across the country are up by 1.5 percent from the year before. Again, officials blame it on Los Angeles, saying that the national increase is because of a significant spike in the number of homeless veterans in the city. If LA is taken out of the equation, homeless veterans have dropped by 3.2 percent in the rest of America.

In an interview with NPR (National Public Radio), Carson attributed the lack of progress in cities like LA and New York to the disproportionate rise in rents as compared to earnings.

“Where we’re not making great progress are in places like Los Angeles and New York City. These happen to be places where the rents are going up much faster than the incomes,” Carson said.

Only the administration’s commitment towards helping the homeless is not enough, says Carson; the need of the hour is a Federal initiative to work more with non-profit players, homeless advocates, religious communities, local governments as well as the private sector to tackle the menace head-on.

“We just need to move a little bit away from the concept that only the government can solve this problem by throwing more money at it,” he says.  “This is not a federal problem – it’s everybody’s problem.”

Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness (LACEH&H), who has been an active witness to the crisis ever since it emerged in the early 80s, is surprised at the endlessness of it.

“I never in a million years thought that it would drag on for three decades with no end in sight,” said Erlenbusch.

While the surge in West Coast homelessness is alarming in itself, what is even more frightening is the deadly hepatitis outbreak being experienced among the homeless in major centers like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Cruz, so much so that California officials were left with no choice but to declare a state of emergency in October.

The good thing is that not everything in the HUD report is bad; there are some encouraging trends, as well, that one can take heart from.

While the homelessness among veterans has shown an increase by 1.5 percent from last year, mainly due to the circumstances in LA, tens of thousands of homeless veterans have been provided with housing in the past few years, bringing down the numbers significantly compared to what it was in 2010.

Family homelessness figures have also improved – down by 5.4 percent from the previous year and by 27 percent from the numbers in 2010. However, there is still much left to be done as 58,000 families with children continue to live outside or in shelters.

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