In the Californian capital, huge tent camps have sprung up along the American River and freeway overpasses have become havens for the homeless, whose numbers have jumped nearly 70% in two years .
Among the 9,300 homeless is Eric Santos, who lost his job at a brewery and was evicted from his apartment in July. Now he carries a list of places where free meals are available and a bucket to mix soap and water for washing hands and sitting down.
“The bucket is part of my life now,” the 42-year-old said, calling it his version of Wilson, the volleyball player who becomes Tom Hanks’ sidekick in the movie “Castaway.”
Cities large and small across the country are facing a similar experience to Sacramento.
Fueled by a long-standing housing shortage, rising rent prices and an economic hangover from the pandemic, the total number of homeless people in a federal government report to be released in the coming months is expected to be higher. to the 580,000 homeless before the coronavirus outbreak, the National Alliance to End Homelessness said.
The Associated Press compiled the results of city-by-city surveys conducted earlier this year and found that the number of homeless people is up overall from 2020 in areas that have reported results so far.
Some of the biggest increases are occurring in West Coast cities such as Sacramento and Portland, Oregon, where rising homelessness has become a humanitarian crisis and political football over the past decade. Numbers are also up about 30% in South Dakota and Prince George’s County, Maryland, and 15% in Asheville, North Carolina.
The data comes from ad-hoc counts that the federal government asks communities to do to reflect the number of people homeless on a given winter night. Counts generally rely on volunteer enumerators and are always imprecise. This year’s counts were taken amid the pandemic and proponents of caution, altered counting methods could have skewed the results.
Research has shown that places experiencing spikes in homelessness often lack affordable housing. To make matters worse, the government’s pandemic relief programs – including anti-eviction measures, emergency housing assistance and a child tax credit that housed people who might have been in the street otherwise – come to an end.
Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the numbers generally rise the most where housing costs are rising fastest – but the government’s response is also making a difference.
Some communities where the numbers are down, he said, are “really looking to house people rather than criminalize them and put them in encampments.”
In Sacramento, where rents are skyrocketing and officials disagree on how best to deal with the problem, homelessness jumped 68% from 2020 to 2022 – the most among major cities reporting results so far.
The increase was partly driven by the city’s heritage of being more affordable than other California cities, which attracted new residents, crushing the housing market. People moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area, 90 miles southwest, have flooded Sacramento with more potential homeowners and renters, driving up prices.
Analysis by Zillow found the average rent in July was $2,300, a 28% increase since July 2019, before the pandemic began. Sacramento County’s median income was around $70,000 in 2020, according to the US Census Bureau.
The crisis has deepened even as things have improved in other California cities that have struggled with homelessness for years. Sacramento’s efforts to address the issue have been marred by years of wrangling between city and county governments.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has made reducing homelessness a priority since taking office in 2017. The city now has more than 900 beds in shelters and motels, up from about 100 five years ago. and moved to ban single-family zoning, a move that could make housing construction easier.
But so far, that hasn’t been enough.
“People are becoming homeless much faster than we get them off the streets,” Steinberg told the AP.
Santos is among them. He was able to register for food assistance but is still on a waiting list to access other benefits, he said. Every night he looks for a park bench he feels safe to sleep on. When he lost a suitcase to broken wheels, he threw away some of his warmest clothes, a decision he regrets as the autumn evenings grow colder.
“Luckily I was able to keep myself afloat with what I had,” he said.
Steinberg argued for enacting a legal right to shelter and a legal obligation for people to accept it when offered. The approach has drawn some criticism from advocates who say it’s just a way to shield the problem from the public eye without providing meaningful help to those who need it.
County officials voted in August to ban camping along Sacramento’s American River Parkway, with a misdemeanor charge for people who don’t comply. City voters will decide in November on a ballot measure requiring the city to open hundreds of additional shelter beds. But that would only take effect if the county agrees to shell out money for mental health and addiction treatment.
Yet the increase in homelessness is not uniform across the country.
A different situation in Boston
In Boston, the number of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters has dropped 25% in two years, as advocates focus on finding permanent housing for those who have been on the streets the longest.
In some cities, “housing first” policies aimed at moving the homeless into permanent housing have been successful. And while the pandemic has brought economic chaos, a moratorium on evictions, increased unemployment benefits and tax credits for families have kept some people from becoming homeless.
Along with Boston, numbers have fallen by around 20% or more in Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Even in California, homelessness numbers are down in San Francisco and growth has slowed significantly in Los Angeles.
The numbers have also fallen in Orange County in California, where considerable efforts have been made to remove encampments – although some supporters question the accuracy of the count.
In Boston, Steven Hamilton moved into a new apartment in September after spending decades on a friend or relative’s couch or in a homeless shelter.
With the help of a program run by the Boston Medical Center, he was able to secure a subsidized apartment in a public housing estate. His share of monthly rent is $281, or about 30% of his social security payments.
“I’m grateful,” he said. “I’m not looking to move anywhere else. I will stay here until eternity. I lost a lot of things. I won’t go through that again. »
After what he called a “horrible nightmare” at a shelter with residents injecting drugs in the bathroom, the studio changed its outlook. He plans to buy furniture, save money for a car, and hopes to invite his family over for Thanksgiving.
“I have a place that I can call my own,” he said.
The Hamilton studio is the result of a Boston strategy in which nonprofits in the city and region use broad outreach to bring people who have been on the streets for more than a year into apartments, then provide services such as addiction treatment and life skills training like budgeting with the help of case managers.
Since 2019, Boston’s annual funding for homeless programs has grown from $31 million to more than $51 million.
These efforts were bolstered last year by a municipal program that drew up a list of homeless people to target for housing and other services. The city also decided to close one of its largest homeless encampments, going from tent to tent to assess the needs of those living there and referring more than 150 people to shelters and other accommodations.
The efforts have not been homogeneous. There have been reports of the re-emergence of an evacuated tent city. And the number of homeless families, while down from 2020, has increased over the past year.
Still, the city has managed to reduce the number of homeless people to around 6,000, down 25% since 2020.
Boston shelters have become less crowded even as Zillow found the city’s average rent rose to $2,800 this summer, up 13% from three years earlier.
Housing advocates say prioritizing the chronically homeless ensures funds have the greatest impact, as long-term homeless people spend a lot of time in shelters. It also costs less to provide permanent housing than temporary shelter.
Lewis Lopez is one of the success stories.
After cycling in and out of Boston shelters for several years, Lopez finally got the keys to her own apartment. No longer worried about his belongings being stolen or fighting over food, the 61-year-old felt he had finally gotten his life back.
“I felt so free, like a ton of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders,” Lopez said of the studio he’s lived in for five years, paid for in part with federal funds.
“I felt like I was part of society again,” he said.
Casey reported from Boston. Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Kavish Harjai in Los Angeles contributed.
Harjai is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.