The tents of homeless individuals, in Skid Row in Los Angeles (Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)

The long-running homelessness crisis in the United States has reached acute proportions in recent years, especially in the country’s wealthiest cities. Between 2018 and 2020, Los Angeles experienced a 32 percent increase in its homeless population. San Francisco’s homeless population has increased 35 percent since 2011, and homelessness will affect as much as 2.5 percent of its population in 2022. And in New York City, the number of homeless single adults has more than doubled in the past ten years. 

COVID-19 has certainly worsened the crisis, but many other factors are involved. Inflation has raised rents and prices of basic goods, contributing to debt and evictions. Stronger synthetic drugs, like fentanyl and very pure meth, have become more widespread in recent years. Social disconnection and pervasive mental-health issues also contribute to the problem. But, as many studies have shown, one straightforward cause clearly outpaces others: a lack of affordable housing.

This helps explain why cities like New York, L.A., and San Francisco—with high-paying jobs, relatively low unemployment, and exorbitant rents—experience much higher rates of homelessness than more impoverished cities like Detroit and Philadelphia. As Jerusalem Demsas explains in the Atlantic, “superstar” coastal cities drawing elite “knowledge” workers also draw low-wage workers to provide the former with services. But when low-wage workers look for a place to live, they find a disordered housing market, where supply cannot be increased to meet demand because of housing and tax policies that favor property owners and regulations and advocacy (so called “NIMBYism”) that restrict building. The result is a game of musical chairs that leaves many out in the cold.

Republicans have used homelessness, along with crime, to argue that Democratic governance has sown chaos in American cities. There’s some evidence that the tactic is working.

Politics in these superstar cities, which tend to be governed by Democrats, have been roiled by homelessness in recent years. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams has proposed aggressive use of a law that would enable the city to force homeless people with mental-health issues into treatment centers. Some critics have challenged the legality of the proposed policy, though a district court judge recently declined to block it. Others have questioned Mayor Adams’s motives: they contend he is more interested in reducing the visibility of homelessness than in helping the homeless themselves.

In Los Angeles, a $1.2 billion housing-bond measure in 2016 was meant to build new units for the homeless, but projects have stalled and costs have soared to nearly $600,000 per unit, far beyond projections. The issue played a major role in the recent mayoral election in which Karen Bass defeated Rick Caruso (both Democrats, though Caruso was formerly a Republican). In Bass’s first week in office, she declared a state of emergency and launched an effort to move homeless people into motel and hotel rooms immediately.

A similar attempt to provide formerly homeless people in San Francisco with permanent supportive housing, mostly in former hotels in the city’s Tenderloin district, has been marred by deplorable conditions and bureaucratic failures. A report in the San Francisco Chronicle found that “many of the buildings...descended into a pattern of chaos, crime and death.” Mayor London Breed is now, like Adams, considering a policy that would allow homeless people with mental-health issues to be involuntarily committed.

Republicans have used homelessness, along with crime, to argue that Democratic governance has sown chaos in American cities. There’s some evidence that the tactic is working. Despite overall setbacks in the midterm elections, Republicans won surprising victories in some New York and California congressional districts. If Democrats are unable to address the crisis, it may pave the way for Republican mayors and governors to impose more draconian and punitive policies.

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

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Published in the January 2023 issue: View Contents
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