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Thumb in the Dike: Homelessness and Deepening Inequality

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In December 2020, USA Today ran a bold headline declaring, “the federal eviction moratorium expires in January. It could leave 40 million Americans homeless.”  The article cites Diane Yentel, CEO and president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who warns,  “We’re facing potentially the worst housing and homelessness crisis in our country’s history.”

In February 2021, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the “latest Census Pulse survey” found that some 15 million adults — 1 in 5 adult renters — were not caught up on their rent payments.  It claimed that

experts agree that renters likely already owe tens of billions of dollars in back rent and will need more help paying rent in coming months. Nearly 5 million renters say they have lost employment income and expect to be evicted soon.”

The Biden administration has put a thumb in the growing homelessness dike. On January 20, 2021, the president signed an executive order mandating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extend the current eviction moratorium until at least March 31, 2021. On February 25, 2021, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac extended the moratorium on single family homes until June 30, 2021.

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Statistics are telling but never tell the whole truth.  Rather, they outline a subject, suggesting the contours of a story. In no area is this more the case when considering poverty and inequality in America.

In 2019, the year before Covid-19 struct, the U.S. Census estimated the official poverty rate at 10.5 percent and involved 34 million Americans.  This was down from the 11.8 percent in 2018 and was the lowest poverty rate annual rate since 1959.

The Census reported that 2019 median household income was $68,703, an increase of 6.8 percent over the 2018 median.  Going further, it reported that between 2018 and 2019, the real median earnings of all workers increased by 1.4 percent, while the real median earnings of full-time, year-round workers increased 0.8 percent.

And then came Covid-19.  By June 2020, the nation’s poverty rate jumped to 8.6 percent and, five months later in November, it skyrocketed to 11.7 percent.  This was the biggest one-year increase in the last 60 years.  And, in April 2020, the unemployment rate peaked at 14.7 percent.

James X. Sullivan, a Notre Dame economics professor and coauthor of “Real-time Poverty Estimates During the COVID-19 Pandemic through November 2020,” notes that the $2.2 trillion CARES Act of March 2020, along with enhanced unemployment benefits, small-business loans and other aid, helped contain unemployment and halt deepening poverty.

“The CARES Act and additional government relief went a long way to staving off a rise in poverty, but those benefits have expired or will soon expire, so it’s not surprising we see poverty creeping up again,” he said.

Now, one year later, Joe Biden signed the “CARES Act 2,” the $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021” (ARP).  Whether it brings real relief by ending the Covid-19 pandemic or ends the ongoing economic recession will significantly determine the fate of the Biden administration and the outcome of the 2022 Congressional elections.  More significantly, one can only wonder how it will affect poverty in this country and the deepening inequality dividing the nation.

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During the Great Depression of the 1930s, American cities across the country sported “Hoovervilles,” shacktowns and homeless encampments that were

testimonials to the housing crisis that accompanied the unemployment crisis that gripped the nation.  The terms “Hooverville” was a deliberately politicized label, accusing Pres. Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party of failing to address the economic crisis and the miseries it caused.

Today, postmodern “Hoovervilles” are back with a vengeance.  They have come to be called “Tent Cities” – sometimes “Trumpvilles” — and can be found throughout the country. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated the U.S. homeless population at nearly 600,000 in 2019, before the pandemic hit.  While many are located in rural or small-town areas, the freeway underpass in the Wilmington neighborhood about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles has become well publicized. (At the start of the pandemic, city officials stopped aggressively “cleaning up” homeless encampments but recently resumed “cleanups.”)

While New York makes an effort to contain homelessness, many homeless people are encamped on city streets, shuffle through subway cars and huddle in building doorways.  One group, Bowery.org, estimates nearly 80,000 New York men, women and children are homeless.  It stresses:

Every night, nearly 4,000 people sleep on the street, in the subway system or in other public spaces. However, the vast majority of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness spend the night within the city’s shelter system where they remain unseen. For every person sleeping on sidewalks or on trains, 20 more are sleeping in shelters.

The Coalition for the Homeless further details the city’s homeless crisis.  It reports that “in January 2021, there were 55,915 homeless people, including 17,645 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system. A near-record 20,738 single adults slept in shelters in January 2021.” Going further, it adds: “Over the course of City fiscal year 2020, 122,926 different homeless men, women, and children slept in the New York City municipal shelter system. This includes more than 39,300 homeless children.”

Among the homeless who seems to suffer the most are gender-nonconforming young people.  “In the United States, 4.2 million youth experience homelessness each year, with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers.”  So warns a recent study, “2020 State Index on Youth Homelessness,” by True Colors United and National Homelessness Law Center.

Homelessness “refers to experiences of sleeping in places not meant for living, staying in shelters, staying in hotels, motels, or campgrounds due to a lack of alternatives staying in cars, parks, or public spaces, or temporarily staying with others (“couch surfing”) while lacking a safe and stable alternative living arrangement.”  The report notes:

Annually, one in 30 youth ages 13 to 17 and one in 10 young adults ages 18 to 25 endure some form of homelessness, and youth of color are disproportionately represented. Latinx youth make up 33% of 18- to 25-year-olds reporting homelessness. Black youth are also overrepresented, with an 83% increased risk of having experienced homelessness over youth of other races or ethnicities. Black youth who identify as LGBTQ+—especially young men aged 18 to 25—reported the highest rates of homelessness. Nearly one in four Black young men, ages 18 to 25, identifying as LGBTQ+ reported homelessness in the last 12 months, and this not even include those who only reported couch-surfing

Youth homelessness is but one additional expression of the deepening poverty crisis gripping the country.

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A report by American For Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies reveals that as the Covid pandemic engulfed the nation, the super-rich engage in an historically unprecedented round of profiteering.  The report found that during the 17 weeks of March 18-July 16, 2020, the collective wealth in the nation’s 600-plus billionaires topped $700 billion.

The total wealth of American billionaires grew by nearly a quarter, from just under $3 trillion to $3.66 trillion since the pandemic lockdown began. That works out to an average weekly gain of $42 billion. Over the same period, weekly jobless claims have spiked to nearly 7 million and never fell below a million.  During the same period, 170,000 people died of the Covid-19 virus and upward of 50 million workers lost their jobs.

When Biden pulls his proverbial thumb from the homelessness dike later this year, the likely resulting flood will likely only increase poverty and inequality.  So, the worse is yet to come.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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