By Marisa Kendall
May 15, 2020 —
Nearly 30,000 Californians could end up homeless in the midst of the unprecedented COVID-19 economic crisis, according to a new report — a potentially catastrophic spike for a state that already was grappling with massive numbers of people living on the streets and in shelters.
That would mean an increase in the state’s homeless population of about 19% over last year, according to calculations by Columbia University economics professor Brendan O’Flaherty, which were published online by the nonprofit Community Solutions.
Across the country, homelessness could surge by as much as 45%.
“If things go the way they have in the past, it will be a big increase,” said O’Flaherty, who based his projections on an analysis of increases in homelessness during the last recession.
An estimated 4.6 million Californians have filed for unemployment as the state’s shelter-in-place order has kept hem home from work. Gov. Gavin Newsom expects the state’s unemployment rate to peak at around 25% — about twice what it was during the Great Recession.
For weeks, homeless service providers throughout the Bay Area have been worrying about a coronavirus-spurred surge in homelessness overwhelming resources that are already stretched thin. It’s not a matter of if such a surge will happen, they agree — but when, and how bad it will be.
San Francisco already has reported a massive increase in the number of people without shelter. During its most recent quarterly tent count, conducted in April, the city reported a 71% increase in the number of tents and make-shift structures on its streets. In the beleaguered Tenderloin neighborhood, there was a 285% increase.
Activists in other cities say they haven’t been able to quantify such a spike yet, but they’re worried.
Bay Area cities, particularly Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, have seen their homeless populations increase dramatically in recent years. Statewide, about 151,000 people had nowhere to call home as of last year, according to the most recent data available.
“I think we’re going to see a huge rise in displacement, homelessness, evictions — people who are already on the border, who are going to be stretched to the limit,” said Andrea Henson, lead organizer with the homeless outreach group Where do we go? Berkeley.
She’s already seeing the signs. People living in shared housing situations are having to move out over fears of spreading COVID-19 within the household, and are resorting to couch surfing. Inmates getting released from jail early to prevent overcrowding and reduce the chance of a coronavirus outbreak are ending up in the homeless encampments she serves.
To make matters worse, those who are most likely to end up out of work during the pandemic are low-wage workers in the service and hospitality industries who can least afford to miss paychecks, according to reporting by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Many of those families were one financial emergency away from homelessness even before the coronavirus crisis began. In a region like the Bay Area, with punishingly high housing prices, it can be impossible for families to get back on their feet once they stumble.
Cities around the Bay Area have enacted eviction moratoriums to prevent those families from ending up on the street. But when the protections expire, tenants will be on the hook for what could be months of back rent — an insurmountable financial hurdle for many.
California legislators have proposed relief plans to help renters stuck in that impossible situation, including allowing tenants to pay back rent payments to the state over a period of 10 years, but the measures have yet to be approved. The federal government also has beefed up unemployment benefits, but not all out-of-work workers qualify. And once those protections dry up, some workers won’t have jobs to return to, as experts predict many businesses closed during the pandemic will never reopen.
Despite the dire projections, there’s a lot that can be done to prevent Californians from ending up on the streets, including providing flexible rental assistance and holding landlords accountable for violating eviction moratoriums, said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.
“If we fail in this endeavor,” she said, “we’re going to see a disaster around this issue that I don’t think many of us can even begin to imagine at this point.”
O’Flaherty based his projections on an analysis of what happened during the last recession. Between 2007 and 2009, for every 1% increase in the country’s unemployment rate, another 0.65 people out of every 10,000 became homeless.
His analysis doesn’t take into account the various relief programs cities, counties, states and the federal government have put in place during the pandemic. But, the economist pointed out, relief programs also were enacted during the Great Recession — and any impact those had has been baked into his calculations.
The local, state and federal governments need to do more to help those at risk of becoming homeless, said Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst, which runs homeless shelters throughout Santa Clara County. The county reported more than 9,700 homeless residents as of January 2019.
“I know the city and the county are trying to prepare for this,” she said, “but I think we are woefully unprepared for an event like this.”
This article courtesy of Mercury News
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