Steve Lunetta: Identifying the causes of homelessness

FILE PHOTO: Sheriff's deputies observe as homeless residents leave the Santa Clara River bed in 2016. Jordan Glenn/For the Signal

For the past month, I have had the opportunity to ride the train from Newhall to Burbank. Besides being a great way to travel, the train provides a chance to see a part of Los Angeles that is invisible to most here in the SCV: the massive underworld of the homeless.

The view from a wind as the train wends its way through Pacoima, San Fernando and Sun Valley shows a panorama of homeless encampments occupying each underpass, open space, and access road. Long lines of dilapidated motor homes snake their way along the light industrial areas that border the tracks.

And the encampments only get larger.

As many of you know, I voted in favor of Measure H in the March election – the sales tax hike to raise funds to battle homelessness – but I was very torn by the decision. After reading the county election materials, I was 51 percent in support, and 49 percent opposed to the proposal.

Measure H was approved by countywide voters and will raise an estimated $355 million per year to battle homelessness.

But what, one might ask, is the cause of this massive problem? The materials I read were not clear on this. For help I sought information from Katie Hill, the deputy CEO at People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). She is also a candidate for Congress in the 25th California District.

Katie’s knowledge in this area is impressive and deep. She shared with me that the causes most closely correlated with homelessness are high rents, low vacancy rates, lack of affordable housing and income disparities.

But I also know that mental illness and PTSD, suffered by both veterans and non-vets, are factors, too. Let’s tackle as much as we can of this in this 800-word-plus column.

High rents in Los Angeles are often cited as a leading cause of homelessness. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has stated that a family must earn $28.65 per hour to afford a two- bedroom apartment in L.A. County. One-bedroom apartments cost $22.19 per hour and studio apartments cost $18.21 an hour.

Sounds fairly high. With a minimum wage of about 10 bucks (although it will rise to $15), it seems like a low-income person would be hard-pressed to afford a place to live.

However, one may argue that the minimum wage is merely a starting point and was never meant to be a living wage. Also, if two minimum-wage earners got together, their $20 per hour could easily afford a studio apartment.

High rents in L.A. are an interesting topic. Rents rise when the market is short on housing or is in a desirable area. Landlords don’t raise rents because they are evil money-grubbers; they do so because the market is able to pay. It’s simple supply and demand, nothing more.

The U.S. Census Bureau states that the rental vacancy rate in L.A. was 2.7 peercent in the last quarter of 2015. There were only a couple cities with tighter housing markets. The national average is about 7 percent.

The data indicates that since housing is scarce, high rents follow, which bump folks at the lower end of the spectrum out onto the streets.

What about income disparity? I find it very interesting that the left screams about this topic – since we just finished eight years of a Democratic president, L.A. government is dominated by Democrats, and we live in a state governed nearly entirely by the Democratic Party. Yet the income disparity has grown unabated.

Without a doubt, a shrinking middle class and a burgeoning underclass inflamed by poor immigration policy has created a gulf that seems insurmountable. Society generally addresses this issue through the development of new industry and commerce. Solid middle class jobs are created that reverse this trend.

Unfortunately, California does not appear to have a strategy to cope with this gap.

In the area of mental illness, the data is conflicting. The Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit headquartered in Virginia, claims that “approximately one-third of the total homeless population includes people with serious, untreated mental illnesses.” The National Coalition for the Homeless, another nationwide group, pegs this number between 20 percent and 25 percent.

So let’s call it 29 percent, on average. That is a huge number. Because the majority of the mental health institutional system has been destroyed since the 1970s, the mentally ill have been forced to live in the streets.

PTSD seems to me like a subset of mental illness and is confusing to quantify. While we understand the veteran component fairly well (about 2 percent of all vets are homeless, according to the VA), many claim that homelessness itself results in PTSD.

How does that work? Many in the mental health community point to the act of becoming homeless as a huge factor, as well as the incidents that occur after being in the streets: rape, violence, and hunger being among them.

As we begin to figure out how to spend the money for Measure H, the understanding of causes of homelessness will be critical to addressing the issue.

Maybe my future train rides will see fewer homeless encampments as hope displaces despair. Many thanks to Katie Hill, who provided much of the data in this column.

Steve Lunetta is a resident of Santa Clarita. He can be reached at [email protected]


Related To This Story

Latest NEWS