In LA, where America’s most expensive home is on sale for half a billion dollars, the homeless occupy “every public space where there’s a chance of shade”, says Giles Whittell in Tortoise. Every bridge is a tent camp and car parks are taken over by people living in their vehicles. The Los Angeles River, which is “actually a concrete channel”, is home to thousands. In the year before the pandemic, LA County’s official homeless count stood at 66,433. There was no count last year because of Covid, but no one doubts that numbers “went up fast”. Homelessness in California has risen by 40% over the past five years.
There are four main drivers: a largely untreated mental health epidemic, a national opioid crisis, soaring house prices in the state, and Covid – which drove a spike in unemployment. Solving the crisis isn’t rocket science. Starting in 2005, Utah’s Housing First programme gave people a flat, an address, the chance to “work and save and start again”, and homelessness fell by 91%. (Then the funding stopped, and the numbers doubled in two years.) Like Covid, homelessness is a test of liberal democracies’ willingness and ability to take care of people. It’s a test that America, “the most generous country in the world”, is failing.
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