Crisis of the Homeless in the United States

"As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly for an isolated solution to the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of workers." – Friedrich Engels

Homeless is a product of capitalism

In an article on December 3, 2017 in the online Truthout, Gus Bagakis said, “There is no greater condemnation of capitalism than its inability to provide adequate housing for those who produce its wealth –the working class.”

Housing is a necessary precondition for security, identity, emotional well-being and leisure of a community. It is the fear of homelessness that has helped capitalism to maintain its power throughout history, from the industrial age to the present times. An Analysis of capitalism demonstrates that governments under the control of powerful corporate lobbies use housing policies, which claim to preserve the stability of a country but actually support accumulation of profits into the private hands.

Bagakis contrasted the homelessness prevalent in the U.S. with that of Cuba, where it is no significant problem, and presents a contrast between a rich capitalistic society versus a society based on socialism, which guarantees the right to housing.  Even within the U.S, capitalism goes where the profits are; for example, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Detroit was the automobile capital of the world, and shifted to Silicon Valley, one of the new power centers of economy. When Detroit was in its prime, U.S. politicians proudly brought world visitors to show off the success of capitalism, and then the Silicon Valley, full of profit potential, mirrored the earlier Detroit success.

The extent of global homeless people and its causes

The United Nations has documented that worldwide there are around 1.6 billion people residing in poor housing, and around 15 million are added to it in forcible evictions each year.

Living in a rich country or a healthy economy is no guarantee to being homeless. However, it is challenging to quantify homelessness with any degree of accuracy due to lack of reliable statistics. Conflicts cause people to lose their homes and look for new places to stay, and natural calamities destroy homes, leaving families without a roof over their heads. Absence of affordable housing is another major cause, and some people are unable to pay their rent or mortgage due to being unemployed. Others have a job, but do not earn enough to cover their rent, as a result of increase in local housing costs.

Except Iceland, Finland, and Japan, which have the lowest number of homeless people, virtually every other country around the globe has a homeless population. Syria, a war-torn country has one-third of its 22 million population as homeless representing  the highest global homeless population. The war has left 90% of its population in poverty, and with infrastructure destroyed including the hospitals, clinics, schools, and water and sewage systems.  Nigeria,  a population of about 214 million with about 24.4 million homeless and Egypt, a population of 111 million with 12 million homeless have the highest number of people without homes in Africa. India with the highest world population of 1.2 billion has 88 million living below the poverty line and suffering homeless, and Pakistan has a population 240 million with approximately 20 million homeless. Columbia in South America has a population 51.5 million and 4.9 million homeless, and Honduras in North America has a population 10.3 million with one million homeless.

The Homelessness crisis in the United States

In the United States almost every city homeless are observed standing on street corners, and sleeping on the bare floor, on the park benches or elsewhere they could find a place for it. The United States has the third largest world population of about 340 million, but the second highest population of about 582,000 homeless in North America, that is, 18 per 10,000 homeless nationally. But the rates differ vastly among its states.

Homelessness varies within the states in the U.S. 

According to 2022 data by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) California, Vermont, and Oregon have the highest overall rate of 44 per 10,000 homeless of the population across the 50 states. However, Washington, DC with a population of only about 713,000 has the highest rate at 65.6 per 10,000 people, while Mississippi with a population of 2.95 million has 1,100 homeless as the lowest at 4.1 per 10,000 people. In sheer numbers, California with a population of about 39.3 million has the most homeless at 171,521, and New York with a population of 19 million has 91,000 homeless as the second-most, followed by Florida with a population of 22.2 million and 25,959 homeless people. The population of Oregon is 4.2 million with 18,000 homeless, and Vermont has a population 647,000 with 3,295 homeless.

The African American population of 42 million represents 13 percent of the U.S. general population but accounts for 37 percent experiencing homelessness and more than 49 percent of homeless families with children. Roughly 700,000 people of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have the highest rate of homelessness in the US at 121 per 10,000 people, partially due to lack of availability of affordable housing.

The largest representative study of homelessness sponsored by the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative of the University of California, San Francisco published on June 20, 2023

An extensive study since the mid-1990s was taken up by the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative of the University of California, San Francisco. The Initiative was funded by Marc and Lynn Benioff, co-chairs and owners of the Time, to provide a comprehensive look at the causes and consequences of homelessness in California and recommend policy changes by the state to shape its necessary programs. The study took a closer look at the period before homelessness, and asked a representative sample of almost 3,200 homeless people from all over the state about what they fall into before becoming homeless and what would have helped them not becoming homeless. The median length of homeless at the time of study was about two years. The study found that the state’s homeless population was aging, with 47% of all adults aged 50 or older, and that most black and Native Americans were overrepresented. Contrary to the myth of homeless migration, most were Californians, 90% of participants lost their housing in California and 75% lived in the same county where they last lived, and nine out of ten lived unsheltered since they became homeless. The results showed that people don’t become homeless suddenly, but go through a lot with lots of chutes and hardly any ladders to avoid becoming homeless. The study carried out in a state where 30% of the U.S. homeless and half of its unsheltered population live was published on June 20, 2023 and reported in the Time issue of July 24, 2023.

Margot Kushel, MD, Professor of Medicine at the University, the leading author of the study said there is a “doom loop” of homelessness. “The results of the study confirm that far too many Californians experience homelessness because they cannot afford housing,” she said.  “Through thousands of survey responses and hundreds of in-depth interviews, the study’s findings reflect the incalculable personal costs of homelessness. Our policy recommendations aim to inform solutions to the homelessness crisis,” Dr. Kushel said.

People have jobs but they don’t cover their living expenses and they lose homes, and the resulting instability makes it harder to keep their jobs. A majority of 64% participants did not seek help, and 49% had a housing situation where they did not have their name on a lease or mortgage. What was striking about the study was how little money people who help the homeless thought it would take to help, and most participants suggested that less than $500 a month or a one time payment of $10,000 would have kept them housed.

Most of those who experience homelessness suffer from mental illness and substance abuse, but Dr. Kushel cautioned that the vast majority of study participants suffered from anxiety and depression, and results pointed out that it was the most likely lack of resources that exacerbated those conditions, rather than the illness causing homelessness. “The driving issue is clearly the deep poverty”, she concluded.

The study offered six key policy recommendations for the state of California as outlined below:

1. Increase access to housing affordable to extremely low-income households making less than 30% of the Area Median Income through producing more housing affordable to lowest-income renters, extend rental subsidies, and ease use of subsidies.

2. Expand targeted homelessness prevention through financial support and legal assistance.

3. Provide robust support to match the behavioral health needs of the population by increasing access to low barrier mental needs during episodes of homelessness, and staffing permanent supportive housing.

4. Increase household incomes through evidence-based support.

5. Increase outreach and service delivery to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

6. Embed a racial equity approach in all aspects of homeless system service delivery.

Commenting on the study Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Health and Human Service Agency said, “As we drive towards addressing the health and housing needs of Californian’s experiencing homelessness, this study reinforces the importance of comprehensive and integrated support.  California is taking bold steps to address unmet needs for physical and behavioral health services, to create a range of housing options that are safe and stable, and to meet people where they are at. We are grateful for the voices of those who participated in this study, as they will help guide our approach.”

Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D. is an author and journalist. He is a retired faculty at the University of Arizona, and lives with his wife in sunny Tucson, Arizona. 

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