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.