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Why can't we stop homelessness? 4 reasons why there's no end in sight

A man carries a sleeping bag at a homeless encampment in Portland, Maine, in May, before city workers arrived to clean the area. State officials say a lack of affordable housing is behind a sharp rise in chronic homelessness.
Robert F. Bukaty
A man carries a sleeping bag at a homeless encampment in Portland, Maine, in May, before city workers arrived to clean the area. State officials say a lack of affordable housing is behind a sharp rise in chronic homelessness.

When Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass campaigned last year on reining in homelessness, she laid out bold proposals with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. In April, she told NPR she hoped for a "very significant reduction" this year, especially of people living on the street. But on Monday, Bass said it's become clear that there's simply no end in sight.

"We really need to normalize the fact, unfortunately, that we're living in a crisis," she said at a press conference announcing a renewal of her emergency declaration on homelessness.

The shift in tone comes after both LA and New York City recently declared a record level of homelessness, and other cities have also seen their numbers continue to climb despite considerable attention and spending to give people shelter. It's part of a steady rise around the country since 2016, after years of successfully driving down the number of people without housing.

So what's going on? Advocacy groups and researchers say a big driving force is the decline of affordable housing, a problem decades in the making but one that has grown significantly worse in the past few years. Here are a few ways it's playing out.

1. More people than ever are being housed — but an even higher number are falling into homelessness

About a third of the U.S. homeless population is in California, and the state faces mounting questions about why billions of dollars spent in recent years hasn't reduced the number of people living in cars and encampments. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has asked the state auditor to investigate. A key program in Los Angeles to move people from hotels into permanent housing appears to be struggling.

CalMatters reports that officials across the state are asking how they can do better, even traveling to Texas for guidance.

And yet, those in California and other places around the country can also argue they are helping more people than ever. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority says it has placed more than 20,000 into permanent housing for five years in a row — a significant boost from a decade ago — and that it's doing this faster than it has in the past. Nationally over that time, the inventory of permanent housing available has increased 26% — and it's more than doubled since 2007.

"We've done a lot" to improve how people are placed into housing, says Steve Berg, chief policy officer at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But he says that's only half the equation. "The other half is people losing their housing ... and we have not had any kind of extensive or organized effort on that," he says.

The upshot is that, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, even as record numbers of people are being housed, a greater number of them are falling into homelessness.

Berg says one key reason is that only 1 in 4 Americans who qualify for a federal housing subsidy actually get it, and that's been the case since he was in law school decades ago. The vast majority of low-income renters must rely on market-rate housing, but the U.S. hasn't built enough housing for more than a decade, since the market crash of 2008. And the shortage is most acute for the lowest income renters — by more than 7 million units, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

That tight market, combined with the worst inflation in a generation last year, has led to double-digit rent spikes in many places around the U.S.

2. Rents are out of reach for many, and millions of affordable places have disappeared

A landmark new report surveyed thousands of people in California about how they came to be without housing, and researchers conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of them. For most, high rental costs were crucial.

"People just ran out of the ability to pay, whether it happened quickly or slowly," says lead investigator Margot Kushel of the University of California, San Francisco.

Some said they'd had their work hours cut. Others lost a job because of a health crisis. Many crowded in with relatives or friends, who were also likely to be poor and struggling. "And we found that those relationships, when they fell apart, fell apart quickly," Kushel says. "People only had one day's warning" to leave. Even those with their own lease had on average just 10 days to move out.

Their median monthly household income in the six months before they became homeless was $960, she says. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in California is $1,700. Around the country, Kushel says, homelessness rates are highest in places where there is both poverty and high housing costs.

That gap has been growing for decades, as rents have risen faster than wages. Nationally last year, the share of renters spending at least 30% or 50% of their income on housing reached a record high. And some markets have seen a major share of their low-cost rentals disappear.

Over the past decade, the number of rentals under $600 fell by nearly 4 million, according to an analysis by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The losses happened in every state, because either rents increased, the units were taken off the rental market or buildings were condemned and demolished. Among slightly higher priced rentals, up to $1,000 a month, some 2.5 million more units were lost.

Even with inflation cooling, rents remain too high for many — and are continuing to increase in some places.

3. Zoning laws and local opposition make it hard to build housing for low-income renters

Voters around the country approved spending for more affordable housing last year, and a record number of apartments are under construction. More places are also loosening zoning laws — some of which date back to segregation — to allow more multifamily buildings in residential neighborhoods. Housing experts say all this is needed to help ease the tight market and bring down prices over time.

With a shortage in the millions of units, though, that could take a very long time. And in most places it's still a major challenge to build affordable housing. "Neighbors will say, 'We don't want low-income people living here,' and they'll stop the housing from being built," says Berg, with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Even housing that does get built and is billed as affordable, he says, isn't always cheap enough for those who need it most. "It's really about having enough deeply affordable housing so that people with the lowest incomes can move into the housing," Berg says. "And if they lose that housing, they can find another place to live."

4. Pandemic aid programs that helped keep many people housed are winding down

An annual count last year did find a pause in the relentless rise of homelessness. Biden administration officials, among others, credit the sweeping array of pandemic aid programs that limited evictions, helped people pay rent and boosted other financial supports. Princeton's Eviction Lab calculates such policies cut eviction filings in half.

Those programs have largely ended in many places and are winding down in others. Beyond having to pay current rent, it means some people also may be expected to pay down rental debt that accumulated during the COVID-19 emergency. Many link the end of such protections to a recent rise in evictions, well above pre-pandemic levels in some places.

Of course, there are other reasons. Some 19% of those surveyed in the UCSF study became homeless after leaving institutions such as prison, and finding employment and housing with a criminal record is difficult. Advocates say there's also need for more addiction and mental health treatment, though it's most effective once someone is safely housed.

But again, the overriding problem, they say, is the dire lack of places low-income people can afford to live.

"There's really no way to solve homelessness without seriously addressing this," says Kushel, the UCSF researcher. "Otherwise, we're going to be compelled to continue to spend huge amounts of money managing an increasingly out of control crisis."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.