Under No Roof | Max Greenhalgh

Under No Roof

by Max Greenhalgh

Take the I-805 to the 94 freeway to downtown San Diego and just look around. It is almost impossible to miss the rows and rows of tents strewn across the sidewalks, full of people just like us that simply can’t afford housing. According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Planning (HUD) report on homelessness in America, San Diego county has a total homeless population of 9,160—the fourth highest in the country. In this same report, it was determined that four of the ten areas with the largest homeless populations were in California, so this problem isn’t exclusive to our community. Why is homelessness in San Diego—and California as a whole—such a large problem? What can we do about it?

As more Californians realize the seriousness of our homelessness problem, individuals and groups have begun to attach band-aid solutions to this massive gash, with predictably limited success. The San Francisco branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) employed a robotic security guard for approximately a month to remove homeless people from nearby sidewalks. Some have criticized the group for their less than humane treatment of the homeless, as simply bumping them with a robot isn’t exactly the most diplomatic way to push them away. The practice of pushing the homeless off of one’s property and onto another’s is also worthy of scrutiny, as this does nothing to solve the problem of rampant homelessness within the city. After a threat of a $1,000 per day fine by the city of San Francisco for operating on a public sidewalk without a permit, the SPCA “fired” their robot. However, the fact that an organization focused on benevolence towards all creatures felt the need to hire a glorified bumper car at all speaks to the gravity of the issue of homelessness in San Francisco.

Mass homelessness is a problem that is not easily fixed without heavy government intervention. And while intervention has been attempted in many forms in the past few years, it will take a long time to see any results. In the face of affordable housing legislation, many Californian homeowners feel that average quality of life will be negatively impacted far too much by low-income housing developments in their areas. Colloquially known as a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality, those with this mindset believe the values of their properties are decreasing due to the increased prevalence of low-income housing and businesses targeting people with lower incomes. These people are thrilled with the booming economy in California, and wish to see it continue booming at all costs, and believe that limiting low-income housing and businesses in the area will serve to slow or halt this growth.

As the number of homeless people in America has grown naturally with population over the last several years, it is arguable that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been underfunded in recent years. Accordingly, the recently-proposed decrease in funding for the HUD is absolutely a net negative for the homeless of America. The department’s funding hasn’t been slashed since 2012, a year in which the dollar declined and uncertain economies slowed previously positive economic movements. However, the White House’s proposed HUD budget for the fiscal year of 2019 (which starts in October of this year) cuts its budget by $8.8 billion dollars, bringing the total discretionary funding down to $39.2 billion from its previous $48 billion. Among other things, this program eliminates the Community Development Block Grant program, which larger cities of California such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego benefit from. This grant gives local governments more latitude to push towards funding they see as important. Given the homelessness issues California is having, many cities that currently receive funding from this grant focus on improving living conditions for low-income and homeless residents.

Direct HUD funding isn’t the only way that the current administration’s policies have hurt the homeless. Compared to the tax policies of previous administrations, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to be much help to the nonprofits that help the homeless the most. Jeffrey Sitcov, President and Founder of local homeless youth charity Doors of Change, explains these changes. “Before people would be able to make [tax] write-offs because they are making a thousand-dollar donation to us. We don’t get that donation anymore [because] they don’t get that write-off. A lot of people now are disincentivized from giving to nonprofits.”

Besides the political barriers that make it difficult for the homeless to advance in society, socio-cultural issues also stand in their way. The homeless are often stereotyped to be chronic substance abusers, too lazy or unwilling to break these harmful habits. However, the experience of Michael Johnson, founding member of the Burrito Boyz homeless charity, begs to differ. Given his years working with the homeless of San Diego, he states that the biggest misconception about the homeless is that “they’re all druggies and alcohol abusers.” The National Coalition for the Homeless found that in 2009, only 26% of the homeless population abused drugs, and a largely overlapping 38% were dependent on alcohol. Johnson believes that the far more serious issue is mental illness, saying that people just “look at the couple of bad seeds that are alcoholics and are drug abusers” and extrapolate this onto the rest of the population. Another significant misconception about the homeless is the general age of our homeless communities. As Sitcov points out, “Federally, there is so little money allocated to the 18-24’s, or the transitional age kids.” According to the 2014 Point-In-Time Estimates on Homelessness report, on a single January night over 40,000 youths in this age range were found homeless and alone. When society thinks of the stereotypical homeless person as nearing the end of the line of life, a massive part of our homeless are missed, and are made even more invisible as a result.