How the United States Chose to Become a Country of Homelessness
Advocates have been sounding the alarms for months—issuing reports, penning press releases, warning politicians as an increasing number of Americans made jobless by the pandemic have fallen behind on their rent. Now, the warnings unheeded, the United States is facing an unprecedented homelessness crisis, one that is as predictable as it was avoidable.
I first saw signs of this coming catastrophe on May 26, as the markets in New York City roared—the Dow was up 530 points, and the S&P hit an 11-week high. But in San Diego, Rudy and Christina Rico rummaged through a blue recycling barrel set out on the street. The couple, married for 37 years, hoped to scrape together $50 worth of bottles and cans. It meant dinner.
“I never thought I’d go through trash cans for money,” Rudy told me as I walked down the drive of a friend’s house, where I was isolating. “But you got to eat.” A mockingbird in a Queen palm filled the ensuing silence. Rudy was a landscaper until the pandemic hit and he lost his job. He and Christina were now living out of their car. They’d never been homeless before. Christina thought I’d come to admonish them. “Some people get angry,” she said.
The Ricos were among the earliest ripples of a crisis that has been looming since the first days of the coronavirus pandemic. As far back as April, after lockdowns jolted the economy to a halt, news outlets began issuing warnings: “31% Can’t Pay the Rent: ‘It’s Only Going to Get Worse,’” declared one New York Times headline; “Rent Is Due Today, But Millions of Americans Won’t Be Paying,” blared NPR’s website the following month.
By August, a group of experts representing some of the leading housing rights organizations in the country—including the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project—arrived at a dire conclusion. In a white paper titled “The Covid-19 Eviction Crisis,” the consortium estimated that “in the absence of robust and swift intervention, an estimated 30–40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months.” The authors warned that “the United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history,” adding that people of color “constitute approximately 80% of people facing eviction.”
In the ensuing months, tens of thousands of Americans have been evicted; according to the Eviction Lab, landlords have filed more than 162,500 eviction notices in the 27 cities it tracks. But the worst of the crisis has been averted so far by a patchwork of state moratoriums that have been supplemented, in turn, by a patchwork of federal efforts. In March, Congress passed a temporary eviction moratorium as part of the CARES Act; after that expired, in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in with its own temporary moratorium. Most recently, as part of the stimulus package passed in late December, Congress provided $25 billion in rental assistance to states and localities and extended the eviction moratorium to January 31. Renters breathed a sigh of relief.
That relief may be short-lived, however. The end date for the federal moratorium looms in a matter of weeks, while various state moratoriums are also slated to sunset. And the $25 billion in rent relief provided by Congress, while critical, falls far short of what advocates believe is necessary. But perhaps the most intractable problem is that a moratorium is not the same as rent forgiveness. This means that, even if the moratoriums are extended again (and then again), tenants will at some point have to pay their landlords all of the accrued back rent. Already, nearly 12 million households owe an average of $5,850 in overdue rent and utilities, according to Moody’s Analytics. That’s $70 billion. How will people be able to repay those sums if they remain jobless? How will they be able to repay them even if they do land a job?
Many advocates believe that only a sustained, robust, and far-reaching intervention by the US government can prevent a full-scale catastrophe. Biden’s victory, along with Democrats’ newly cemented control of the Senate, have given them some hope that aid might be forthcoming. But with Republicans still holding significant power in Congress and Democrats hemmed in by their own party dynamics, they are hardly breathing sighs of relief.
California, with its stratospheric housing costs, is expected to be especially hard-hit. Between 4.1 and 5.4 million residents are at risk of eviction, the white paper notes. The next closest states are New York, with 2.8 to 3.3 million; Texas, with 2.6 to 3.8 million; and Florida, with 1.9 to 2.5 million. The most conservative prediction in a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia projects a 50 percent increase in evictions in 2021.
The Ricos foreshadow what will happen. They had already faced a difficult choice while they waited a month and a half for Rudy’s unemployment benefits to begin: either use the money, whenever it arrived, to catch up on their rent, which had been suspended because of the pandemic but would need to be paid at some point, or make their car payments. They chose the latter, in part because they thought they could move in with family.
“We were staying with my sister,” Rudy explained, “but she got the bad liver, and the doctor told her she had to get everybody out of the house.” So the Ricos found themselves living in their car instead, sleeping on different streets each night to avoid the cops.
At the time, the couple, both 55, said they would likely be homeless for a long while, even after Rudy returned to work. “It’ll cost $3,000 to get back into an apartment,” he said.
That was over seven months ago, weeks after the alarms had first begun to sound.
Homelessness is not a new phenomenon. It has been recorded as far back as the Bible and has made frequent appearances in literature, a subject of both curiosity and despair. In 1886, Leo Tolstoy completed What Is to Be Done?, a nonfiction meditation on poverty inspired by a trip he had taken to the Khitrov marketplace, the skid row of Moscow. A friend told Tolstoy that the poor were an “inevitable condition of civilization.” Tolstoy, tears in his eyes, cried out, “It is impossible to live thus…impossible!”
Tolstoy’s friend was wrong: Homelessness doesn’t have to be inevitable. As enduring as it appears in some times and places, it is scarcely known in others. Japan, for instance, has few unhoused people—just 3,992 were counted in 2018, according to the most recent data from the country’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. In the United States, by contrast, the ever-expanding number of the homeless is a choice—one made not by those who live in tents but by politicians, policy-makers, and, of course, the real estate industry.
This choice, like all choices, has a history. It didn’t begin with Covid-19, though the pandemic amplified it, dragging it toward the present, extreme precipice. The origins of this choice go back further—past 2017, the year the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that there were more than 550,000 homeless people in the United States; past 2008 and the last eviction crisis; past the early aughts and the 1990s; and all the way back to the 1980s, the beginning of a new kind of homelessness.
There is no precise date that denotes the birth of modern homelessness, but there are numerous markers. One pivotal point is 1980, which was also the year I moved to California. After being homeless myself, living out of my Datsun pickup for months, I applied for a job at The Sacramento Bee. When I phoned the city editor, Robert Forsyth, the morning after Election Day to hear whether I’d be hired, he told me, “I have good news and bad news.” I wanted the bad news first. “Reagan is president.” The good: My start date was November 17. I took the pairing of my first big newspaper staff position with Ronald Reagan’s ascent as a sign of how I’d spend the next 40 years as a journalist.
I rented an apartment near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers and often walked in the riparian forest where there were secret sleeping spots, with sheets of cardboard or newspapers spread on the ground. Who were these people? I reported a story on them, which ran in January 1981 under the headline “Detox Center Is Home to Winos.” (The word “homeless” was not yet in wide use; the men who sometimes slept “in the weeds” along the river were still deemed “winos.”) What I witnessed was the “old” type of homelessness—older people, mostly men, with long histories of mental illness or addiction, who lived in a few concentrated areas, exposed to the elements.
A short version of what came next: Reagan set to work fulfilling the long-held Republican dream of dismantling the legacy of the New Deal, ushering in the neoliberal era and a growing worship of markets. On the housing front, he slashed the budget for federal programs and shifted the resulting diminished resources away from public housing and affordable-housing construction and into vouchers for people to seek shelter on the free market. These and similar assaults on the social safety net were compounded by growing economic insecurity, born in part from stagnating wages, sharply rising rents, and the loss of well-paying jobs as deindustrialization devastated middle America.
Amid all this, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker sought to tame inflation by tight monetary policy, causing interest rates to soar. I felt lucky to get a 12 percent rate on a mortgage for a home I bought in 1982. Volcker’s policy created what was then the most severe recession since World War II.
This economic slump set the stage for a different kind of unhoused American. In 1982, I rode the rails with a new breed of “hoboes,” many from the Midwestern steel cities. These were formerly middle- and working-class Americans who in the postwar years would never have become homeless. But here they were. In Sacramento, I can mark with precision the week that more of these newcomers began guerrilla camping along the river. A tent city had sprung up across from a rescue mission. The city evicted them.
“Accompanying the closing was a corresponding increase in the number of people camping…along the banks of the American River, much to the annoyance of Sacramento police who have been rousting them over the past week,” I wrote in a story published on June 13, 1982. Ron Blair—typical of the newbies—told me, “I’ve paid taxes all my life. Most guys here work every day. Why treat people like dogs?”
In November 1982, the recession officially ended. A story on the new hoboes assigned to me by Life magazine was spiked. An editor told me it was old news—we were in recovery.
By 1983, it was clear to Los Angeles attorney Gary Blasi that the nation was not in recovery. From his perspective, this was the year that “mass homelessness” became a permanent fixture of the Southern California landscape. The benefits of the supposedly booming economy would not “trickle down,” as Reagan had promised. In the 1980s, Blasi litigated on behalf of these newly unhoused people for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, where he was a cofounder of its Eviction Defense Center. In the ensuing decades, while a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, he continued working on homelessness issues as Los Angeles emerged as an exemplar of a new and visible type of street homelessness, with tents popping up beneath freeway underpasses and in the quasi-tropical flora planted at cloverleaf interchanges. There was a much less visible but growing problem of homeless families with children, an issue I covered for the Bee in numerous stories.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Blasi foresaw a disaster. In late May, he published “UD Day: Impending Evictions and Homelessness in Los Angeles,” a study for the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. It was written in anticipation of the day when “unlawful detainer” complaints—the legal term for the proceedings leading to eviction—could once again be filed in courts. A statewide moratorium had been put in place that April by the Judicial Council of California, in part prohibiting “a court from issuing a summons after a landlord files an eviction case, unless necessary to protect public health and safety.” The council lifted the ban on September 1. But it was soon superseded by the CDC’s order.
“It just got postponed,” Blasi recently said of the wave of evictions.
Now, however, the city faces a reckoning. Blasi said he used very conservative calculations to determine that, on the high end, “120,000 households in Los Angeles County, including 184,000 children, are likely to become homeless at least for some period.” On the low end, it could mean “36,000 additional homeless households with 56,000 children.” That’s a range of some 100,000 to nearly 400,000 people.
Part of the reason for those five- and six-digit numbers is that Los Angeles, like many major metro areas, has a high rate of rental households—54 percent live in rentals, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. (In New York City, renters represent 67 percent of households, while in neighboring Newark, the number jumps to nearly 78 percent.) “On the track we are on now,” Blasi said, “it will be the biggest mass displacement of people in one area of the United States in history.”
The question of what will happen to this multitude haunts advocates like Mel Tillekeratne, the executive director of the Los Angeles nonprofit Shower of Hope. The organization runs one of the “safe parking” programs in the region, which operate secure parking lots where people who live in their cars can pull in and sleep. Tillekeratne told me what other nonprofit service providers are also saying: They are bracing for a deluge of the unhoused.
“From Professor Gary Blasi’s report, what we all know is that there’s going to be a huge influx of homelessness,” Tillekeratne said. “The county of LA—and not just the county, the whole state and this country—has to look at: How do we work towards maximizing rapid rehousing?”
Without a rapid rehousing plan, the tens of thousands cast from their homes will be left to fend for themselves. Some might be lucky enough to land with family or friends, doubled or tripled up in already crowded homes. Others may join some of the nearly 16,000 people already using their vehicles for shelter in Los Angeles County. People cling to their cars, like the Ricos in San Diego and a woman named Aida I met at the safe parking lot, who worked but couldn’t afford rent. While sleeping on the streets is an option, relatively few of the evicted immediately wind up in a tent. There are many steps to that grim end stage. The descent into the madness of homelessness is a process.
In 1986, I found myself cruising west on Hollywood Boulevard in a 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 with 152,300 miles on the odometer. I was in the passenger seat. It was late fall, and I’d come to Los Angeles for a story on hunger in California. I had heard about a new phenomenon of people with jobs living out of their cars. I’d just met Wayne at a soup kitchen. He’d been laid off from an oil field job in Texas and came to California seeking work. A fist-sized roll of bread, nabbed from a soup kitchen, sat on the dashboard. In the rear seat were his possessions: two suits encased in clear plastic, shiny black wing-tip shoes, and a painting that had hung in his Houston home.
Each night Wayne parked on a different street to avoid the cops. He had come to California thinking he had enough cash left for rent. “See, in Houston, I could get an apartment for $250,” he said. “I mean a good place. I went into one place here worse than a rat hole. And they wanted $850, plus first and last.” So he decided to live in weekly-rate hotels. But by the fall, he was down to his last $7. He began sleeping in the car.
“Every week you say, ‘I’m not going to slide down one more inch,’” he told me. “What happens? Next week, you’re down another inch. It’s hard to admit that you’re living like this, especially when you were in the middle class…. One thing I want more than a place to live is to be able to get my own food. This bread here—even a hard, crusty piece—is good when your stomach gnaws at you at midnight.”
On another day, I met up with Wayne and shadowed him as he sought work. Dozens of help-wanted ads clipped from newspapers rested on the dash. He visited over a half-dozen places. I pretended to be in line at fast-food restaurants as he talked to the managers. He came off smart and sharp.
“I applied for eight to 10 jobs in fast-food restaurants in the last two weeks,” Wayne told me. “They won’t hire a 43-year-old for a minimum-wage job. Here I am, balding and slightly graying. It gets discouraging. Who’s gonna hire me?” Beyond the age bias was another kind of discrimination: He told me he lost two cinched jobs when employers checked and found that his address was a drop-in center for the homeless.
“Believe it or not, this 19-year-old, bombed-out crate with all its scratches and torn interior is a blessing,” he said, referring to his car. “It keeps the rain out, the cold out, the muggers out. I can’t lose it. But I might run out of gas down the road.” He contemplated having to siphon gas. “It’s no hayride. I’m just trying to survive.”
Two weeks later, I returned to look for Wayne, cruising the half-dozen spots that he had shown me. I found his Ford Galaxie 500 and knocked on the window. Wayne had sold his blood for the first time ever the previous week. When he opened the trunk to get something, I saw a rubber hose. There was gas in his tank. He wouldn’t say how he got it.
I tell Wayne’s story from long ago for a reason. His desperate attempt to hang on to his car will not differ one iota from the stories of the people rendered homeless by the pandemic depression of the 2020s. The stories don’t change, just the dates on the calendar.
By the time the pandemic struck, the country’s combined crises of unaffordable housing and wage stagnation had pushed many Americans to the brink. According to the August report by the team of housing experts, nearly half of all renter households in the United States “were already rental cost-burdened,” which means paying more than 30 percent of monthly income on rent. At the start of the pandemic, 10.9 million households—one-quarter of all renters—spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent.
Even before Covid-19, “we had a shortage of 7 million affordable apartments available to the lowest-income renters,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and one of the authors of the white paper. “For every 10 of the lowest-income renters, there were fewer than four apartments that were affordable to them. Covid only revealed the long-standing housing crisis.”
Last summer, the coalition began advocating that Congress approve $100 billion in emergency assistance to avoid creating “a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when back rent is due,” Yentel said at the time. “And it provides the rental income that small landlords need to be able to continue paying their bills and maintaining their property.” That funding for small landlords is important: About half of the 47.5 million rental units in the United States are properties owned by mom-and-pop operations, many at risk of foreclosure if they can’t pay their mortgages and taxes. Without relief, Wall Street investors could swoop in on a fire-sale buying spree, as they did with single-family homes in 2008, making the housing market even more expensive.
So far, the efforts of the coalition and other housing advocates have met with modest success. While the December stimulus failed to deliver the $100 billion housing packaging they had advocated, the $25 billion it did provide “is a very significant down payment towards meeting that overall need,” Yentel said.
Going forward, she expects Biden to make rent relief a priority in negotiations with Congress. If he fails, Yentel said, “we’re looking at the very real possibility of tens of millions of people losing their homes this winter during a surge of Covid-19.” But even if Biden succeeds, the country will need to embrace a host of longer-term solutions to help tackle not only the fallout from the pandemic but also the structural causes of mass homelessness.
Those potential solutions are many, ranging from wide-scale job creation—especially jobs that pay decent wages—to widespread affordable housing interventions like rent control and subsidized housing. One bold proposal by the grassroots think tank the People’s Policy Project, in a paper coauthored before the pandemic by Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper, calls for the creation of 10 million new affordable housing units in 10 years, funded by a combination of local housing authorities and the federal government.
It’s not that radical to argue that the federal government should fund affordable housing, said Blasi, the emeritus UCLA professor. He noted that billions of dollars have been fire-hosed on corporate America. “We could ramp up a wartime production of manufactured housing,” he said. “It’s just a question of will and money.”
In the short term, Blasi is working with legal-aid lawyers, tenant organizers, and software engineers as well as two founders of the Debt Collective, a group of financial activists, formed from the ashes of Occupy Wall Street, who have agitated to cancel student debt by holding debt strikes, flooding the Department of Education with claims against for-profit colleges, and other actions. Blasi and the team have created a website that will allow tenants to electronically file answers to eviction notices within the five days the law allows them. They’re also marshaling volunteers to help guide tenants through the process and assembling pro bono attorneys to represent them.
Meanwhile, Blasi is flabbergasted that city and state officials have been doing nothing to prepare for the coming wave of homelessness. He coauthored another study over the summer for the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy that outlines how the government could create refugee camps that would both be safe and allow residents to maintain their dignity.
“It’s beginning to look like they’re not going to get their act together to be able to do that,” Blasi said. “People are still in denial of what’s to come.”
If past is prologue, then present is almost certainly future.
I returned to Sacramento in the early summer and saw what’s to come, in 2021 and beyond, by visiting the places I first reported on 40 years ago. Whereas the homeless camping spots were scattered, hidden, and temporary back in 1980, with the number of unhoused people measured in the low hundreds, today there are thousands, and in places the camps sprawl as far as the eye can see. There are now three tent cities in Sacramento, the two major ones—the Island and the Snake Pit, the largest—on the American River.
“The camps have kind of developed like cities: You have a downtown part of the camp, and you have little areas off to the side where there’ll be eight or nine tents, kind of like subdivisions,” said Joe Smith, the advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit that provides homeless services, when he took me to visit them. He said the official count was some 5,500 unhoused people, but in reality, it was more like 10,000.
Our first stop was at the Snake Pit. Dozens upon dozens of tents and tarps stretched into the forest on either side of a levee. Smith pointed beyond the wild almond trees heavy with nuts to patches of brush thick with Russian thistle. “Just going that way, there’s probably 500 people buried in there,” he said. It reminded me of the images Dorothea Lange took of homeless camps along the same river in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration. Using her photographs as a guide, I realized we were passing those exact sites nearly 84 years later.
As we entered, we met George, from Oakland, Calif., who showed me the 100 watts’ worth of solar panels he installed near the door of his tent to power lights and a television; he also charges phones for his neighbors. We spoke for a while, during which he pulled out a scrapbook of his family and happier times, then ascended the levee bank together. There we found Smith talking to another resident, a middle-aged woman who could have come to life from one of Lange’s photographs—she had the same weary face and faraway gaze.
I asked her why it’s called the Snake Pit. “There’s a bunch of snakes here,” the woman answered.
“And they’re not cold-blooded creatures,” George chimed in.
“There are some snakes here that live on the ground,” the woman added, “but most of them walk on two feet.”
Smith said he’s bracing for a massive influx. “There’s a whole new segment of people that are going to go from being housed to unhoused, and it’s going to happen suddenly,” he told me. “It’s going to be very traumatic for them. They can react one of two ways. They can be scared and dysfunctional. Or they can come out here and just be as brutal as they can be—their survival instinct. And I know this because I did this. I was that person,” he added, trailing off. Smith was homeless and slept next to the river some years ago.
The following day, Smith took me to the Island. This encampment draws an older crowd that, even before Covid-19, had isolated to keep the residents safe, he said. I followed him down a well-traveled trail flanked by box elder, tangles of wild grape, and plentiful poison oak. The Sacramento River glistened in the noon sun. There was a graveyard for the dogs of the Island. Crosses marked the resting places for Yogi, Girl-Friend, and Ginger. “Dog bless” was written on two of the crosses. The camp was a stark contrast to the Snake Pit: It was clean, with the ground raked and the tents and tarps widely spaced.
The unofficial head of the Island is Twana James, 50. Her tarp home was tidy. Almost everything in it—from a tiny Jesus to a coiled purple glass heart, a television, a stereo, and a fan—came from dumpsters. James is an upbeat woman who doesn’t like calling herself the leader, but she is that by default. Her accent is typical of working-class whites in the Central Valley—her words fall off and she speaks fast, in a mumble, perhaps a linguistic legacy of the Dust Bowl migration.
“We have movie nights,” James said. “This Saturday we’re going to have Passion of Christ. I have Bible study on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 to 9.” She also cooks. Tonight’s menu: pigs in a blanket, which she’ll prepare for about 35 of the 70 residents. The rolls of biscuit dough at her feet would be used to wrap hot dogs, which then get baked. Although members of the Island pitch in for the expenses and James solicits donations on a GoFundMe page, she often spends her food stamp allotment, as well as her Supplemental Security Income, to cook for everyone.
“I end up spending it helping the guys and the elders, because I love them—I do.” She came to tears as she talked about Renegade. “He’s getting up there. He can’t walk in. He can’t make it to the bathroom sometimes. He makes a mess, you know.” Another man was blind. “We take care of our own,” she said.
I thought of this community as a cooperative (or, as Smith calls it, “a collective”) and flashed on Tom Collins’s Works Progress Administration camp in Weedpatch, Calif., which was thinly veiled by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. That camp practiced self-governance, as the Island does. Scofflaws are evicted; the residents of the Island don’t want to give the cops any excuse. Like their counterparts in the Weedpatch Camp, they have created order in lives that otherwise had none.
I wondered if I wasn’t looking at the future for many Americans who, in a year or two, will lose their apartments or homes in the fallout from the pandemic. Will the federal government be there to help? One has little faith, given the past four decades of American political life. Maybe the evicted will be on their own. Maybe the best they can hope for is to establish collectives hidden in riverine forests. If that happens, if the Democrats cannot prevail over Republican obstructionism and find the political voice to care for working-class Americans, the only question that remains is what these modern-day Hoovervilles will be called: Trumptowns or Bidenvilles?
Dale Maharidge, a journalism professor at Columbia University, was a newspaperman for 15 years. He’s the author of 10 books.
Co-published with The Nation.