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America’s Homelessness Crisis Is Deepening

Despite strong GDP growth and an extraordinarily low unemployment rate, more than a half-million people in the United States are homeless on any given night. And with housing prices rising while median wages remain stagnant, the problem will get worse unless policymakers intervene.

BERKELEY – After 95 consecutive months of job growth, the United States unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7%, its lowest point since 1969. Yet wage growth remains stubbornly slow. In fact, after adjusting for inflation, the median weekly earnings of full-time workers are about the same as they were in 1979. In a related indicator of stress on American workers, the number of homeless people in the US actually rose in 2017 – the first increase since 2010 – partly driven by skyrocketing rents and housing prices.

West Coast cities are among the hardest hit. From Seattle to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, tech workers earning six-figure salaries are dodging tent cities to get to work, and state and city governments are under increasing pressure to respond. At the same time, funding for US Department of Housing and Urban Development programs has fallen below what it was in 2010 (adjusting for inflation).

Getting an accurate count of the homeless is difficult, in part because it is an unstable population. People can be driven into homelessness by many contingencies, including income insecurity, eviction, transition from incarceration, domestic violence, drug abuse, and mental health issues. Recent estimates indicate that more than 550,000 people experience homelessness in the US on any given night, with about two-thirds ending up in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, and one-third finding their way to unsheltered locations like parks, vehicles, and metro stations. According to the Urban Institute, about 25% of homeless people have jobs.