As experts continue to predict that El Niño will bring colder and wetter weather conditions to the state of California this winter, the promise of heavy rains bringing relief from a scorching four-year drought will undoubtedly be cause for celebration among the majority.
But for the growing numbers of men, women and children who are facing homelessness, it is likely to cast a pall and send them searching for shelter from the storm.
Of the very few benefits offered by the drought, it has at least provided those without a roof over their heads the guarantee of warmer days and dry nights. But if forecasts of record rainfall come to fruition in the coming months, shelters in Southern California—few and far between—will be inundated and apt to turn away more people than they will be able to assist.
For the last two decades, in particular, California has become a bastion of homelessness despite achievements in most every industry, including technology, medicine and ecology. According to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the state consistently ranks #1 in homelessness and accounts for some 20 percent of the total U.S. homeless population.
Los Angeles alone has the second highest number of homeless people in the U.S. — some 53,000 — and ranks among the top ten in the world. In affluent Orange County, where rents are high and vacancy rates are low, the statistics are almost as grim, with the stigma of homelessness often carrying the additional and unbearable weight of guilt and shame, which drives those who need help and support the most into a downward spiral of depression and hopelessness.
It isn’t hard to understand. With a deepening division between classes and escalating living costs, Southern Californians must keep pace in a region that consistently ranks among the nation’s top ten costliest places to live, or leave it behind.
Before the financial crisis of 2008, most Americans contemplated the plight of the homeless just long enough to reinforce widely held notions of whom the homeless were and what set them on their tragic journeys. By 2010, however, average hardworking citizens were confronting record-breaking foreclosures and a new reality accompanied by the new face of homelessness, which for many had become their own.
No longer confined to the stereotypes of the mentally ill, substance abusers or alcoholics, homelessness had reached historic numbers. In a report issued that year by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, one in 200 Americans experienced homelessness, with a 9 percent increase in the number of families seeking emergency shelter on any given night.
Today, the state of the U.S. economy can be viewed like two sides of the same coin: on one side, economic statistics from 2015 paint an encouraging portrait, with rising retail sales, increased industrial production, falling gas prices and all-time low mortgage interest rates; on the other, housing stability remains a distant proposition for a large segment of the American public, as well as California residents who simply cannot afford to buy or rent a home.
There’s great irony in our state today: The dichotomy of extreme drought and torrential rainfall juxtaposed with tremendous wealth and trouncing poverty. Yet all create the sum of its parts and a fabric of life in which we are utterly intertwined.
But that’s not necessarily the only reason why we as a society should care.
Numerous studies continue to show that it costs cities, counties and states less taxpayer money to provide the homeless with a safe place to live than it does to leave them on the streets. If places like Utah and major cities like Phoenix, New Orleans and Austin, Texas are eradicating homelessness, California most certainly can, too.
Perhaps part of this troubling predicament lies in our own feelings of helplessness, or inability to see human frailty and failures as opportunities for personal growth. But that may be precisely the way to approach homelessness, and end it.
In the same way we cannot predict with 100 percent certainty how much rain will fall, we cannot predict the storms of life. But it is 100 percent within our power to offer unconditional support and a safe harbor to our brothers and sisters—whether clean and sober or still facing the challenges of addiction, abuse, physical disabilities or mental illness—and chance for everyone to live a better life.
Donna Gallup, M.S.W., L.S.W., is president & CEO of American Family Housing (AFH) and a lifelong human services advocate who has worked to benefit disadvantaged individuals and communities.
AFH is a nonprofit organization that operates 63 housing sites with 283 units that serve more than 1,300 unduplicated adults and children each year in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. For more information, visit www.afhusa.org.