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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.

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.

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