Every other year, local governments desiring some of the roughly $2.7 billion that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) spends annually on homeless services must complete a task: Tell HUD how many homeless people there are to service.
The method used is inexact at best. To count the unhoused and unsheltered population—the shelters are usually full to bursting with waitlists hundreds or a thousand names long—county health or human services agencies, or nonprofits to which the task is contracted out, often resort to the simplest method of enumeration known, the one you learn in kindergarten: They (or citizen volunteers, mostly) go out with flashlights, clipboards and pencils, and literally count heads, or curled-up street sleepers, or RVs, or tents.
How many people an office manager or sales rep guesses are sleeping in an RV or a tent they’re peering at in the semi-dark becomes data. Whether the volunteer presumes two or four is up to them—I can tell you this, for I have done it twice, in 2009 and 2017, and I don’t believe my guessing skills improved much—and thus wholly arbitrary, a snap decision that can result in a variance of 100 percent. Or more. Is that just some old car, or an old car someone lives in? Is that RV the glamping vehicle for an Instagram influencer or some eccentric Burner type, or does it house the family of four who couldn’t afford the landlord’s latest offer? You don’t know and you can’t know. Yet, this is the data the federal government uses, and we arrive at neat numbers like, “500,000 homeless people in America, 8,011 homeless people in San Francisco.”
As CityLab wrote, among many homeless experts, the consensus is that the result you get when untrained volunteers make guesses in the dark is inexact and flawed and probably an under-exaggeration. Whenever you ask “how many homeless people are there,” you can take the official number and add to it by maybe a third. (Compounding the underestimation of the problem is the federal government’s restrictive definition of homeless; if you are couch-surfing on a relative’s or a friend’s couch or staying in a motel without a permanent address, you are not homeless.)
This is all interesting but mostly trivial, context for absorbing the results of the 2019 homeless count in the San Francisco Bay Area, America’s favorite microcosm and dystopian parable.
Anyone with eyes who has spent more than five minutes in San Francisco or Oakland was already painfully aware that the region’s homeless problem has devolved from international embarrassment to ungodly humanitarian crisis. But this is not a Bay Area thing—that is, it is a Bay Area thing, but it is also a Los Angeles thing, and an Orange County thing, and—less you fall into the easy and false snare of “coastal liberals”—a Bakersfield thing.
Tents on streets, poor people living in RVs, human misery filling in the landscape of fantastic wealth and human progress: This is California’s thing.
The point-in-time count’s drumroll of shame—a 17 percent increase in homeless in San Francisco, a 42-percent increase in Oakland—is superfluous confirmation of what everyone already knew. The rent is too high, there isn’t enough housing, and California grows ever wealthier. There is momentum here that will take years to slow, far less reverse. According to San Francisco city data, for every one person who escapes homelessness, three more people take their place.
To blame this all on California or Californians is lazy and wrong. The U.S. once had a national, federally funded safety net. Ronald Reagan took care of that, and it will take a president who is not craven and who can admit the obvious and maybe even withstand predictable whining from red-staters who don’t have a homeless crisis to restore it. (We do not have such a president.) But homelessness is particularly bad in California because housing prices are particularly bad in California. They are bad because of a lack of supply, yes, due to restrictive growth and zoning laws, but also distortions in demand. If nobody could afford to pay $1 million for a 950-square-foot bungalow in Palo Alto, nobody would. Since there are a precious few drunk on Silicon Valley treasure who can, they do—and anyone making real-person money is faced with a choice: fleeing the state, or living in an RV.
This is a crisis in the same way a tire fire that’s been burning for a decade is a crisis; it is so bad for so long it becomes part of the permanent landscape, greeted with a resigned shrug rather than burning shame.
“Unfortunately it’s not a big surprise,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed told The San Francisco Chronicle. “Certainly there is more we need to do, but at the end of the day this is a challenge that exists in the entire state of California.”
What do San Franciscans think about all this? At least some think it’s not their problem. Breed, the city’s first African American female mayor, was recently shouted down at a public meeting stuffed with wealthy waterfront condo owners, who insisted that the last thing they wanted was a homeless shelter on public land in their district. (There are already homeless people living, unsheltered, in their district.)
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The Bay Area’s funhouse-level distortions generate many takes. (The viral Washington Post article claiming San Francisco lost its soul and is bad now was riposted by the local paper’s culture critic, who argued that San Francisco has always been bad. Beautiful, but bad.) The Bay Area is the apotheosis of capitalism; without brakes or limits or values, a moral and economic system predicated on the market and market value for everything will inevitably create a wasteland of human wreckage, and society’s dismissal of this wreckage as a cost of doing business—something to step over on the way to the driverless car whisking you away to a hermetically sealed corporate campus.
Unless proven otherwise, California is OK with all of this. Unless demonstrated otherwise, most of us—who continue to move to California for as long as we can stand it, before we are driven out or our homes burned—are OK with it, too. Let this serve as a warning.