L.A.’s Spiralling Homelessness Crisis Promises To Be Key Election Battleground

Arson, assault, and a growing sense of animosity – life is tough on L.A.’s notorious Skid Row. Home to 5,000 rough sleepers, it is considered ground-zero in the city’s accelerating homelessness crisis. Numbers have steadily risen in recent years, stalked by a shift in public sentiment against the unsheltered. L.A. is not alone in its homeless epidemic – San Francisco, New York and Seattle are all recording spikes – but curiously, in America as a whole, levels are down. Skyrocketing house prices in these sprawling cities are to blame, experts say, but the role of other factors – not least mental illness – cannot be ignored.

On Santa Monica’s bustling pier, by Venice Beach, and scattered across Skid Row, L.A.’s homeless population is expanding. This summer, their numbers topped 50,000 – 12% higher than last year. The rise has confounded city officials, who’ve pushed through new taxes and poured billions into housing schemes. Since 2015, homeless budgets have increased a staggering 25-times; but still, the situation spirals. 

It is not an isolated problem. From coast-to-coast, American metropolises are grappling with homelessness. San Francisco’s unsheltered community has increased by 18% in the last decade, Seattle’s 35%, and New York’s by almost 60%. But nationwide, since 2009, homelessness figures have fallen by a tenth. The issue is acute and uniquely urban. 

An unremitting rise in house prices is to blame, experts believe. Most on the streets are suffering short bouts of poverty, unable to keep up with mushrooming monthly bills. In cities like New York or L.A., for every 10% rent hike, there will be an 8% spike in homelessness, according to researchers at the University of New Hampshire. A majority of victims find temporary shelter with state or charity assistance, and in time reacquire their own accommodation. 

But if even a fraction of the needy fall through the cracks, that’s tens-of-thousands facing chronic destitution. Among these worst cases, the scourge of ‘triple affliction’ – homelessness, addiction, and mental illness – is rampant. A study by the Los Angeles Times found some 76% of those on the streets suffer psychological or physical disorders, keep in generally poor health, or struggle with substance abuse.  

Worryingly, these maladies appear to intensify the longer an individual is unsheltered, notes Janey Rountree, executive director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA, whose research has highlighted a gender dimension to the crisis also. “These issues were the most profound for unsheltered women, especially experiences with abuse and trauma,” she said. 

Worse still is the epidemic’s fast-mounting mortality rate. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of deaths in L.A. increased two-fold, and now top a thousand a year. (Even when taking into account the higher numbers of homeless people, that equates to a one-third spike in fatalities). Drug and alcohol overdoses were the largest contributing factors, with victims passing an average 22 years before regular citizens.

This bleak picture is further marred by an unsettling surge in aggression against L.A.’s homeless community. Through the first six months of 2019, violent crime targeting unsheltered people leapt 34%, with over 1,200 reported incidents. The use of fire and incendiary devices – a common score settler on the streets – is also on an upward trend. In one such incident, a beloved Skid Row musician called Dwayne Fields died after his tent was set alight. The man charged with his murder was himself homeless – inter-community violence is not uncommon, the LAPD says.

Fields’s killing, and those like it, have thrown the homeless plight into sharp relief. For the first time in decades, the issue is resonating with would-be voters – polling by the Public Policy Institute of California recently found it to be the state’s top problem in most people’s minds. With an election looming, homelessness promises to be a fractious policy battlefield. President Trump has already broken cover on the subject, casting it as a blight that ruins the US’s “best highways, best streets, [and] best entrances to buildings.”

Strident words, but his bite might be worse than his bark – he’s publicly flirted with increasing arrests and even warehousing street-dwellers in unused aircraft hangars. History reflects poorly on such muscular measures. L.A.’s one-time ‘Safer Cities Initiative’ hoped to sweep Skid Row clear of crime and disorder by cracking down on minor offences, but it succeeded only in criminalising homelessness.   

Regardless, Mr Trump seems happy to adopt a hard-line. Unsheltered people are often migrants in search of “prestige”, he said recently, though data shows that some 75% of L.A.’s homeless community are locally raised. 

The Democrats, unsurprisingly, are offering a different approach – one that runs contrary to Trump’s planned 18% housing budget cut. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s “housing for all” scheme would commit billions to home construction, a pledge shared by most of the Democratic contenders.        

‘Housing First’ is another promising approach. It involves placing unsheltered people in accommodation without preconditions – such as sobriety – with a view to providing social services later. Though devised in America, the policy has been most widely rolled out in Nordic nations. In the decade since it was launched in Finland, homelessness rates have halved. 

Repatriating the scheme would be a positive move, but so severe is the crisis that only root and branch reform will suffice. A truly holistic approach is needed, one that addresses not just the paucity of affordable homes, but also homelessness’s sharp racial disparity, mental illness, and the widening gap between rich and poor. As the 2020 election nears, hopefuls will talk a good game – but for those on Skid Row, actions – not words – are needed.