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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 14, 2023

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Has the Beinoff Homelessness and Housing Initiative Report been discussed yet here? You can read the report here, an executive summary here, and a transcript of the report being discussed on the Ezra Klein Show here.

Released in June, it’s a statewide study on homelessness in California, the largest of its kind in some thirty years. It’s built on “nearly 3,200 participants, selected intentionally to provide a representative sample, and weighted data to provide statewide estimates. To augment survey responses, we recruited 365 participants to participate in in-depth interviews”. No question as to the state of focus: California is just over a tenth of the American population but nearly a third of its homeless population and nearly half of the unsheltered homeless population.

Approximately one in five participants (19%) entered homelessness from an institution (such as a prison or prolonged jail stay); 49% from a housing situation in which participants didn’t have their name on a lease or mortgage (non-leaseholder), and 32% from a housing situation where they had their name on a lease or mortgage (leaseholder)...Leaseholders reported a median of 10 days notice that they were going to lose their housing, while non-leaseholders reported a median of one day.

Other takeaways are that contra claims that homeless populations are traveling to California for warm weather or social services, 90% of interviewed participants said they were from California (and 75% from the same county they were homeless in), and backed it up with various details about their hometowns and whatnot. This also aligns with the finding that only about a third of the homeless even sought out government services, suggesting that most people are not taking advantage of whatever unique government services for the homeless California offers (which aren't good anyway). This overall makes some common sense imo - if you’re so broke you don’t have somewhere to live then your options for travel are likely limited as well.

The paper is interesting as a resource in its own right, but I think it’s most useful combined with the claims made in a book referenced in the Ezra Klein discussion of the report: “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.”

The piece argues that housing costs are the primary driving factor behind homelessness. For those who claim that homelessness is mostly a reflection of insanity and addiction, researchers point out that those things are frequently worse in other states with less severe homeless problems (correlations available in the hyperlink).

For instance, West Virginia has worse poverty, mental health, and substance abuse, but has a homeless problem vastly less bad than California's (0.09% vs 0.4%). The only thing California performs worse than West Virginia on is, predictably, housing costs. Or why does San Francisco, with a poverty rate of 11.4%, have such a worse homelessness problem (0.95%) than much poorer cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans, all of which have poverty rates more than twice as high around 23% and homelessness rates around only 0.27%? The clearest answer is the most straightforward: San Francisco is simply twice as expensive to live in (a studio apartment in SF is little over $2k vs a little over 1k for the other three cities). This also lines up with the survey responses, with 89% of respondents saying housing costs were a barrier to them finding housing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean those mental health and addiction aren’t highly important here are as well, but that there may be a demographic of fairly low functioning people who are able to take care of themselves, just barely, at low costs, but are simply unable to under heavier financial burdens. Jerusalem Demsas compares this to a game of musical chairs: as you take away chairs one by one steadily the slower and weaker kids will find themselves without a place to sit. But if you don’t have enough chairs / are going through a severe housing shortage, of course you’re gonna have a worse chairlessness problem then elsewhere, even if their kids are slower and weaker.

And once you’re out, it can be very hard to get back on your feet. Your credit history is gonna be terrible, as is your appearance. Maybe you live in your car for a while but then it gets impounded because you have nowhere legal to park it and can’t pay for the tickets. Then you’ve lost your shelter as well as your ability to go to a job. From there you’re really in the streets, which is scary - some people may take uppers due to fear of being asleep in public where people can hurt you or steal from you, and thus pick up addictions. Things spiral very fast from bad to worse.

Taken together, these suggest early intervention and a clear policy prescription to build more housing and do what can be done to lower costs - not because every disheveled person on the street is a fresh-faced suburban homeowner waiting to happen, but specifically the opposite - that every poor or unstable person living on the cusp of not being able to afford where they stay bears the risk that it’ll be much harder for them to bounce back from a fall than to sustain where they are.

Interested to hear what other people thought.

I’m at work right now and unable to read the whole report at this time, but the question that jumps immediately to mind is: How many of the people surveyed are so-called “hidden homeless” - people who are couch-surfing, living in their cars, staying with a succession of family members and friends without officially establishing a long-term residence, etc. - versus the “chronic homeless”, i.e. the ones living on the actual streets?

If I lost my job tomorrow, I feel like I could find a new one fairly quickly, but let’s say for some reason I couldn’t. I have some savings that could get me through for a while, and even if I didn’t, I have a network of family and friends on whom I could rely on temporary financial/housing assistance.

So, even though I live in a very high-COL major city in California, that cost of living would not result in me living in the street unless a ton of other things went wrong in my life simultaneously. Namely, I would have to burn bridges with a lot of different people in my life in order for things to get to that point.

Even if my entire family and social network were much poorer than they are, presumably they would still have couches I could sleep on and bathrooms which I could use to shower and shave. They wouldn’t let me get to the point where I’m a filthy bum sleeping on the sidewalk.

So, yes, I can fully understand how high COL could contribute to a larger number of “hidden homeless” - functional individuals who are down on their luck and temporarily relying on help from others - but I don’t think it does much to explain the proportion of homeless people who become “chronic homeless”; these people must have been real fuck-ups to have exhausted the generosity of all of the people in their lives who could have pitched in to prop them up while they get back on their feet. Again, I understand that people who grow up in an impoverished family/social situation have a smaller pool of assistance to draw from, but I still don’t understand how a person with family and friends ends up out on the streets unless they have consistently done something to wear out their welcome with the people who could have at least provided the bare minimum support, namely a roof over their heads.

Some examples of how someone would wear out their welcome with the people in their lives: chronic alcoholism/drug abuse, stealing from others (like, for example, to feed the aforementioned alcohol/drug habits), domestic violence/threats, being so mentally ill that you’re considered a liability by others, being generally insufferable to be around, etc. People get to the point where they give up on helping you because their investment is wasted, and they can’t bear to be responsible for you any longer.

So, I don’t know to what extent high COL explains those people. Again, I haven’t yet read the report, and maybe it explains a lot of this stuff.

There’s also the factor that high COL localities tend to have many more people in lower working class households, so the family and friends of lower working class people in San Francisco simply have less ability to put up a down on their luck friend or relative because their houses and apartments are overcrowded already.

I think you're also overlooking that low-functioning-but-not-cartoonishly-deranged people are simply incredibly frustrating to deal with when they won't get their shit together and insist on abnormal behavior. People who could solve most of their problems with "just be normal" don't get much sympathy as page five news stories about floridaman, and in real life they wear out their welcome pretty fast. Not by pissing people off, not by doing drugs, not by getting in fights and causing property damage, but just by needing a helping hand because of their own poor decisionmaking and frequently enough refusal to do mildly unpleasant or boring things.

Having spent some time in a homeless shelter myself for vulnerable youth, I am dismayed at how often this particular subset of the "hidden homeless" population is overlooked. Many of those youth, myself included, came from abusive households. Several of them, myself included, were still students trying to keep up the appearance of living a normal life as a well-adjusted member of society while having to sneak away to a homeless shelter in the evenings. Many of them, myself included, concurrently with undergraduate education on a co-operative work term, were employed - one of them even owned their own construction company - and were struggling to make ends meet in a city with ever increasing costs of living.

Even these character archetypes of couchsurfers or people living in a van or with family don't exhaust the full spectrum of the "hidden homeless." Not all of them have family or friends to fall back on; that's how some of them end up in a homeless shelter (which I suppose is more important in northern latitudes than the balmy climes of California). Especially if you are coming from an abusive household, sometimes those bridges need to be burned.

Try telling your friends that you are homeless. I have done so; some will shake their heads in pity and offer a kind word, but to expect them to actually understand what that's like is a tall order. Even here there is already a palpable lack of comprehension about how one could possibly end up in this situation. Further, were they to extend a helping hand, (an opportunity I was fortunate enough to have presented to me), there is a certain sense of pride in not wanting to be dependent on another, especially if they are not of your blood. It is a situation I myself have fallen into, and an offer I was still prideful enough to decline. You're living in a beat up one-bedroom apartment up in the suburbs with your own family to take care of, and now out of the blue you need to take in yet another mouth to feed into your already cramped space? Fuck it, I'll hack my own way through this world.

That's the problem I have with reducing the homeless to tired old character archetypes of psychos or methed up drug addicts. While I've only skimmed the transcript of the Klein interview on the NYT, it seems guilty of the same thing; there is little focus on the humanity and individual lived experiences of the homeless, and while that may not be the focus or subject of the interview (and that's OK), I am, to recycle a tired old trope, tired of the "sonder" (there's a millenial word for you) of tragedy being reduced to a fucking statistic. Because many homeless fall through the gaps and don't fit neatly into your perfect, abstract buckets of reality. Nevertheless. I'm already used to not being properly understood, being on the margins, an edge case, having said archetypes projected upon me and being pigeonholed onto one of your overly simplistic little categories, especially by fucking white liberals progressives who claim to have been educated out of prejudice and stereotypical thinking and incessantly wave this falsehood in your face, so perhaps it's time to move on to what to do actually do about it all.

On the subject of real estate and cost of living, having spent a few days in San Diego myself for business in a country club with golf courses as far as the eye could see, I can't really help but recall Liam Kofi Bright's essay "White Psychodrama":

[...] the culture war is sustained by a material inequality that no one is seriously trying to fix. Repenters and Repressers are both responding to discontent generated by an ideology-reality mismatch, but neither of them wishes to either ideologically justify the material inequality or give away their property and superior opportunities.

It's incredibly tone deaf for Californians in one of the most expensive housing markets in the world to wave the banner of equity and redistribution of resources when they are sitting on acres and acres of open land that could be repurposed for high-density affordable housing. If California were really serious about "eating the rich" and "solving homelessness," demolishing those fucking golf courses ought to be pretty high on their list of priorities.

But this would anger the elites. It's much easier to hide behind empty words and simulacra of compassion and equity, than to actually give property to the homeless.

Thanks for your perspective, voted for AAQC.

This perspctive is what I agree often gets missed when we talk about homelessness. It's strange to me that even when a strong study is presented that says hey, maybe homelessness is about, you know, HOMES, so many people here immediately jump to drugs and shitting on the street.

The real problem is that housing, a basic human need (maybe right depending on your beliefs) is denied to many because they simply cannot afford it. And this isn't a complex problem like many try to make it out to be - as others have said, if we just stop artificially constraining the supply the market will help solve the problem. It won't fix it entirely of course, but not shooting ourselves in the foot repeatedly is a good start.

It's strange to me that even when a strong study is presented that says hey, maybe homelessness is about, you know, HOMES, so many people here immediately jump to drugs and shitting on the street.

Because it amounts to a bait and switch. The people pushing this study have preferred policies about subsidized housing, and they're using the claim that the homeless problem can be solved with those policies to push them. But the "homeless problem" as most people understand it isn't about people couch-surfing or living in their cars or even illegal immigrants making camp near Home Depot; it's about the drug-addled street shitters who make life miserable for everyone else. And you can't fix that with homes; you can give those people homes and they'll wreck them in short order.

But the "homeless problem" as most people understand it isn't about people couch-surfing or living in their cars or even illegal immigrants making camp near Home Depot; it's about the drug-addled street shitters who make life miserable for everyone else. And you can't fix that with homes; you can give those people homes and they'll wreck them in short order.

I see it as a nuanced problem with more than one solution. Ideally we strictly police the defectors ruining the commons, but at the same time we tackle the issue that is creating them in the first place.

Personally I'm for stricter policing of public spaces, crackdown on illegal opiate/meth dealing, and building more housing. Just because we do one doesn't mean we can't do the rest.

"Fixing the root cause" is the standard leftist answer to all our intractable problems, and as can be determined by "intractable", it doesn't work. The root cause of street shitters simply isn't high housing costs anyway.

The root cause is something close to personal responsibility and lack of religion, in my opinion. I hope to fix that too. But again, you're reducing me to one view.

We can do all of the things I mentioned above and also push for personal responsibility and the importance of religious belief.

What do you think the root cause is?

I don't know what the root cause is. If we found it, I doubt we could do anything about it -- maybe 4000 people out of 4 million are just irretrievably broken by the vagaries of chance. I think the main priority should be containing the problem.

More comments

I mean, true, but the ability to be obscured by lots of people who just can’t afford a house provides cover preventing these people from being beaten by the police/arrested/otherwise persuaded to change their ways.

They aren't obscured at all except by those deliberately conflating them. And it isn't that preventing them from being beaten or arrested; it's another part of the leftist memeplex, a part I'm more sympathetic to (though getting less so).

As for those who just can't afford a house, I have no sympathy. If you can't afford San Francisco because the prices are too damn high, there are 332 cheaper cities with populations over 100,000 that you could move to. I can't afford to live in SF either, why should I subsidize those who are living there without a fixed address?

As much as I sympathize with your individual plight, I don’t think it counts into the “homeless problem” in the society’s view. Shelters or non-profits or churches might be interested in helping you, but people like me (normal, well-off, employed people with families and mortgages) do not care about you much. Indeed, there are a lot of poor and struggling people on this planet, and I can’t spare too much energy or emotion on you.

Instead, what I see as an actual problem is crazy, unpredictable, aggressive hobos taking over the commons, and making the city dangerous and unlivable for normal people, while collectively consuming more government resources per capita than the poorest working people actually subsist on. This is the problem for me, because it actually affects me in a substantial and negative way.

My point here is that you are or were not like them, and it is unlikely that any solution that applies to one group will also apply to the other. The hidden homeless are overlooked on purpose, because they are only a problem to themselves, not to anyone else.

Shelters or non-profits or churches might be interested in helping you, but people like me (normal, well-off, employed people with families and mortgages) do not care about you much.

Be that as it may, some of your tax money is already being used to, supposedly, help the homeless. I am not sure what you would prefer, but you can of course support not spending tax money on this. If you do support spending tax money on it, then there is a question of whether it should be spent as it is currently being spent, or whether more of it should be spent to give the homeless housing.

Indeed, I have benefited from, and owe my life to, a primarily privately funded nonprofit.

I appreciate your blunt honesty. I find it refreshing. It's far more human than the dispositions of progressives who claim to be for X virtuous cause while simultaneously doing nothing material to advance it.

I agree that this non-negligible subset of homeless people exists, and I also doubt the existence of a solution that covers all cases. Nonetheless I still hope (in vain?) that something can be achieved that minimizes suffering and waste for all parties in a resource efficient manner.

Wanting to cause problems for only myself is already a difficult enough goal to aspire to. Yes; it is a long and solitary road.

How many of the people surveyed are so-called “hidden homeless” - people who are couch-surfing, living in their cars, staying with a succession of family members and friends without officially establishing a long-term residence, etc. - versus the “chronic homeless”, i.e. the ones living on the actual streets?

Here's their breakdown:

More than three quarters (78%) noted that they had spent the most time while homeless in the prior six months in unsheltered settings (21% in a vehicle, 57% without a vehicle). Over the prior six months, 90% reported at least one night in an unsheltered setting.


Namely, I would have to burn bridges with a lot of different people in my life in order for things to get to that point.

I think it definitely remains true that becoming homeless doesn't require just having lost your house, but probably having lost your friends as well. This is part of why I described (I should probably clarify this is my own take rather than the study or podcast's) that we're talking about a demographic of pretty low-functional people that are near the bottom of society in general. But clearly in states with twice as much poverty, worse opioid problems, etc, if these people can afford a place to stay it makes a pretty siginificant difference in whether they'll wind up on the street, where their pathologies will become a public nuisance/safety issue, and where it becomes significantly harder to get someone back from after they've landed there.

I wonder how much of California's homelessness problem stems from a large portion of their population being transplants? West Virginians today are pretty much all descended from people who lived in West Virginia in 1950 and so have nearby relatives, whereas Californians very frequently are descended from people who didn't live in California in 1990 and so have few to no nearby relatives.

That's a good point, I'm not sure. Here's what I dug out of the paper though not sure if it really answers our question:

Overall, 36% of participants had sought help to prevent homelessness, but most sought help from friends or family, rather than non-profits or government agencies...

Seeking support was more common for adults in homeless families, where 61% sought assistance. The most common sources of support sought across all participants were friends and family (22%); community-based organizations, religious organizations, or domestic violence services (16%); and government agencies (8%) (Figure 20). Adults in families sought help from any source more frequently than single adults and TAY.

Twenty-three percent of all participants received help. Adults in homeless families were more likely to receive help; nearly half (48%) of adults in families received help of any kind (compared to 21% of single adults and 24% of TAY). The most common reported types of support received were from friends and family, community-based organizations, and government agencies. Adults in families received help from any source more frequently than single adults and transition age young adults

More remarkably, for where people stayed the previous night:

More than three-quarters of participants (76%) stayed in unsheltered settings the night prior to their interview; 20% stayed in a vehicle, and 56% without a vehicle. Nineteen percent stayed in an emergency shelter, 0.3% stayed in a domestic violence shelter, 2% stayed in a motel, hotel, or trailer paid for by the government or an organization (e.g., as part of a COVID program), 0.1% stayed in a motel or hotel paid for by self or family, 1% stayed with family or friends, and 0.5% stayed in institutional settings, such as hospitals or jails.

If people had been homeless for less than six months, we asked where they had spent the most time during their episode of homelessness. The responses were similar to where participants had been the previous night: 78% were in unsheltered settings (21% in a vehicle, 57% unsheltered settings without a vehicle). Fifteen percent reported that they spent the most time in an emergency shelter, 0.3% in a domestic violence shelter, 2% in a motel, hotel, or trailer paid for by the government or organization, 2% in a motel or hotel paid for by self or family, 0.5% in a substance use treatment program, and 2% with friends and family.

In fairness, at this point we're interviewing a group of people who've lost all ties with friends / family, whether they had them to begin with or not. Lower down it suggest these people did have connections but their family and friends were just unable to accomodate them for one reason or another:

Families and friends can be a source of housing support for many individuals, providing places for individuals to live. But many participants noted that their family or friends were not able to provide a place to stay (Figure 36). Half (51%) of all participants noted that their family and friends were unable to accommodate them, with 39% noting it as a barrier that impacted them a lot. This issue was more frequently identified as a barrier among transition age young adults (70%, with 53% indicating it impacted them a lot) and adults in families (65%, with 57% indicating it impacted them a lot) than single adults (49%, with 37% indicating it impacted them a lot). This finding could be because family or friends do not have space or resources for the participant to live with them, or because rental agreements for market-rate or subsidized housing may limit the number of residents permitted to reside in a unit, or the length of time a guest is allowed to stay there.