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From Hoovervilles to Trumpvilles: Homeless Crisis Deepens

Nearly a century ago, when the Great Depression descended on New York in 1929, Gotham, like cities around the country, sprouted Hoovervilles, homeless encampments. In New York, a dozen or so were in Central Park and dubbed “Hoover Valley,” “Shanty Town,” “Squatters Village,” “Forgotten Men’s Gulch” and “Rockside Inn.”

Other Manhattan encampments included “Hardlucksville,” the city’s largest encampment, at 10th Street on the East River, and “Camp Thomas Paine” in Riverside Park and the West 70s. Farther uptown, the homeless found residence in floating shanties along the Harlem River around 207th Street; at Camp Dyckman, which consisted mostly of World War I veterans; and at Marble Hill, just across the Spuyten Duyvil, where Sarah J. Atwood and her daughter, Mavis, ran a boxcar village.

The outer boroughs were also home to encampments. In Brooklyn, a large facility operated on Columbia Street, in Red Hook, and near today’s Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn Heights, some six hundred people lived in “Hoover City.” Writer Edward Newhouse lived for three weeks in a Queens encampment to do research for his novel You Can’t Live Here.

A new generation of homeless encampments – Trumpvilles – are spreading throughout the country. In New York, they have popped up in each of the five boroughs as recent press reports indicate. Three examples are suggestive:

+ In Manhattan – there was a homeless encampment on Sixth Avenue between West 23rd and 24th Streets.

+ In Elmhurst, Queens – an original encampment of around 15 to 20 expanded to 60 and 70 people.

+ In Staten Island – an encampment sprouted outside the Richmond County Bank Ballpark in St. George, home of the Staten Island Yankees.

Throughout the nation, Trumpvilles are multiplying:

+ NPR reported in January — “Across California and other parts of the country, these growing homeless encampments evoke shantytown ‘Hoovervilles,’ where hundreds of thousands of destitute Americans lived during the Great Depression.”

+ In Berkeley, CA — Berkeley Fire Department doused a fire at the city’s largest encampment, at University Avenue just west of Interstate 80.

+ In Philadelphia, PA – there was an encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Ridge Avenue.

+ In Minnesota – homeless Native American men, women and families build a tent colony at the Wall of Forgotten Natives near Hiawatha and Franklin Avenues.

+ In Tacoma, WA – the city government reports: “… the number of homeless individuals exceeds the number of local available shelters. Finding immediate shelter options for people being displaced from encampments continues to be an ongoing challenge.

+ In Seattle, WA– an unmanaged encampment was recently removed in the area behind the Navigation Center on a public stairwell.

Trumpville homeless encampments are spreading throughout the country.

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Once upon a time, immigrants came to America – and more specifically New York – believing that the streets were paved with gold. Then, the U.S. represented the opportunity for a new, better life. Those days are over and the streets of America, especially in New York and other cities and rural communities, are increasingly paved with homeless lost souls.

As the Covid-19 pandemic eases up, the number of homeless people is increasing. Walking through almost any New York neighborhood or riding on subway trains one is struck by the growing number of people asking for a handout, waiting at a church/community food shelter or sleeping at a city shelter, on the street or in subway a car. The crisis is likely to only get worse as evictions are expected to increase as the weather gets colder.

New York’s Coalition for the Homeless reports that as of June 2020 there were 58,736 homeless people sleeping each night in the municipal shelter system. This included 13,275 homeless families with 19,626 homeless children; families make up two-thirds of the homeless shelter population.

It reports that the number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 59 percent higher than it was ten years ago. The number of homeless single adults is 132 percent higher than it was ten years ago.

Making matters worse, each night thousands of unsheltered homeless people sleep on the streets or in doorways, in subway cars and in other public spaces. The Coalition warns, “There is no accurate measurement of city’s unsheltered homeless population, and recent City surveys significantly underestimate the number of unsheltered homeless New Yorkers.”

Most disturbing is the racial composition of city’s homelessness population. The City government provides the following data for families with children as of March 2020:

+ Black/non-Hispanic = 54.1 percent

+ Hispanic = 39.9 percent

+ White non-Hispanic = 2.9 percent

+ Other (Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander) = 1.0 percent

+ Unknown = 2.0 percent

Six months later and as the Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on city life, these number are problem far worse.

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Brendan O’Flaherty, a Columbia University economics professor, projects an increase in national homeless rate by 40-45 percent this year compared to January 2019. (HUD reports that as of January 2019 the nation-wide homeless level reached 567,715 people.) O’Flaherty projects that upwards of nearly 250,000 people will become homeless “if homelessness follows unemployment the way that it has done so in the earlier part of this century,” thus reaching over 800,000 people.

In September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the jobless rate in April reached 14.7% — “a level not seen since the Great Depression.” O’Flaherty notes that this level of unemployment “is unprecedented.” And adds, “No one living has seen an increase of 10% of unemployment in a month.” Making matters worse, O’Flaherty does not address the problem of increased evictions and foreclosures that is being to take place.

The U.S. is not New York so the composition of homeless is different. In January 2020, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported that for 2019 states with the highest rates of homelessness per 10,000 people were New York (46), Hawaii (45), California (38), Oregon (38), and Washington (29). It noted each state was “significantly higher than the national average of 17 persons per 10,000. The District of Columbia had a homelessness rate of 94 people per 10,000.”

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) reports, “deliberately-racist economic and housing policies, communities of color have always disproportionately experienced homelessness and housing insecurity.” It notes that “people of color experience homelessness at disproportionate rates. Black, Latinx, Native American, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities experience compared to White and Asian communities.”

The NLCHP offers insight into the all-to-often forgotten fact that White people make up a larger proportion of the homeless that any other group. It notes that nearly half (47.7%) of the homes are White while about two-fifths (39.8) are Black and one-fifth (22%) are Hispanic.

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In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread and the economic impact mounted, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion economic stimulus. It included a limited ban on evictions of tenants living in federally subsidized housing that were unable to pay their rent. The ban halted evictions for 12.3 million households, about 28.1 percent of all federal renter households. The ban ended on July 24th.

However, Census data for July 9-14, 2020, show that 13.8 million adults in rental housing — 1 in 5 renters — report being behind on rent. It notes that households of people of color reported higher rates of missed payments compared to the national average.

On September 1st, as the social crisis resulting from coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession continued, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) banned evictions of tenants from any residential property because of nonpayment of rent through December 31, 2020. It applies to only people who lost work as a result of the pandemic and permits landlords to charge late fees and other penalties as permitted.

The CDC’s ban does not relieve tenants from the obligation to pay rent—all of it comes due on January 1, 2021—and it allows landlords to continue to charge late fees and other penalties as permitted by law.

In addition, about 20 states have implemented moratoriums of their own.

Most troubling, if the eviction ban is not again extended after the New Year, a considerable number of households and people are at risk of being evicted from the homes for an inability to pay their current rent and that owned due to earlier bans. Estimates of the number of tenants at risk of eviction vary but each is alarming. Three of these estimates are frightening:

+ The Aspen Institute notes that “if conditions do not change, 29-43% of renter households could be at risk of eviction by the end of the year.” It estimates that between 28.9 million to 39.9 million people are at risk.

+ Stout Risius Ross, a management consulting firm, estimates that 40.56 percent of renter households are going to experience rental shortfall and 12 million households will face eviction over the next four months.

+ The NLIHC estimates that between 30 and 40 million people in the U.S. could be at risk of eviction in the next several months.

In an attempt to deal with the need to find the money to pay the rent, Americans are shuffling their limited resources. Some renters are using money from government assistance programs, borrowing from friends and relatives, seeking loans and using their credit cards to pay the rent. More and more families are using a greater proportion of their budget to pay their rent and a staggering number of Americans are turning to food banks to meet their household food needs.

Like his predecessor Herbert Hoover, in time Donald Trump’s presidency might only be remembered for its Trumpvilles.