U.S. Homeless Rates Declining ... Except In One Region


New Census data reveal that homelessness rates declined far and wide across the country last year; that is, except for one region, where the homelessness crisis is so bad, it is actually pushing up the overall national rate.

In Los Angeles, California, the total number of homeless people rose by 13,000 in 2016 to a total of 55,000 according to a report from U.S. News & World Report. Of that number, 5,600 live on the streets either in tents or in their cars. Several other West Coast cities — like Seattle — are experiencing a similar problem.

However, if just Los Angeles is left out of the equation, homeless rates actually fell in 2016 by about 1.5 percent. That fact points to just how severe the crisis is in southern California.

In contrast, the HUD report showed a long-running decline in homelessness continuing in most other regions. Nationally, the overall homeless number was down by 13 percent since 2010 and the unsheltered number has dropped by 17 percent over that seven-year span, although some changes in methodology and definitions over the years can affect comparisons.

So nationally, the problem is actually much better than it was 10 years ago, unless you’re on the West Coast, and specifically in Los Angeles. What’s going on?

The cost of living in the Los Angeles area is sky-high, and rents have been increasing for years to extremely high levels. Many simply cannot afford to pay the rates, and end up homeless. What’s particularly concerning about Los Angeles’ situation is the number of people not only homeless, but also without shelter.

Across the city, people are staying in vehicles, tents, under bridges, and other places that are not meant for habitation. As a part of this, the region is experiencing an outbreak of Hepatitis A. Clearly something needs to change here, but what?

One idea to analyze is how New York City handles homelessness. The city has put together a system that has left almost no one without shelter, even though it has the largest number of homeless people in the country.

Consider Kevin Corinth’s research at the American Enterprise Institute.

In New York, every homeless family that we know about lives in a shelter. Only a better word is probably housing. Family shelters provide private units, and often, multiple bedroom apartments with their own bathrooms and kitchens. On-site services are generally offered as well. To be clear, these are far from luxury apartments, and there are certainly examples of neglect by the city. But these are the exceptions.

Those who apply for shelter offered by the city must demonstrate they actually are in dire need. If they have another place to go, they will be denied. But if they do not have another place to go, the social safety net is there, and at the local level.

Perhaps the best evidence that families in New York City shelters are not truly “homeless” is that for many poor families, a shelter is preferable to sharing housing with others. Of all the families that apply for shelter in the city, only about one third are actually accepted.

This comes after an extensive multi-day investigation by city officials into the family’s background, including interviews with relatives with whom they have lived. Families with a safe place to go are denied shelter. But the fact that they applied for shelter anyway suggests that they prefer so-called “homelessness” to a safe housing option.

Los Angeles could consider what New York has done and offer a similar safety net. There will need to be longer-term solutions to the issue of skyrocketing rents (a discussion of rent control laws is a subject for another time), but this kind of approach could be adopted more immediately and be tailored to Los Angeles' particular situation.

A longer term solution, and one that is more difficult to achieve, is to tighten the most important social bond: family ties. As . Corinth and Claire Rossi-de Vries argue in a research study, family ties are the most important factor in preventing homelessness.

We find that lifetime incidence of homelessness is reduced by 64 percent for individuals with strong ties along each of these dimensions. Ties to relatives are most important followed by ties to religious community, while ties to friends have no impact. Strong social ties are almost as important as never relying on public assistance in mitigating the risk of homelessness.

The approach to solving the homelessness crisis will involve tangible strategies, but families must independently work to ensure that no one is left isolated from their relatives as well.

The good news is that since 2015 10 cities declared states of emergency to deal with the issue, and as a result of concerted efforts, overall homelessness is decreasing.

But for some areas, there are serious issues to tackle, and that will require a multifaceted approach.

Have you ever been without secure housing? Know someone who has been similarly situated? What did you do, what help did you get, and how did you improve your circumstances?