Reporting on California’s homeless, Invisible People share tent-dwellers’ stories on the new Skid Row, the outcome of years of disparity that’s only gotten worse since COVID19 gripped the economy. What can be done about it?
The story of Dirk
Dirk, 64 years old, originally from Idaho, has a tent in Venice Beach, California. Working as an independent contractor in Montana for 14 years, Dirk moved to California in January, at the start of the pandemic. It’s the first time he’s been homeless, his entire life, moving to get away from the cold winters.
“I decided I’d like to see a better climate because I’m tired. I’ve been in construction all my life. I’m tired. I’m tired of working. It’s time for me to retire.”Dirk Reed, Tent Dweller, Venice Beach, Ca.
Dirk paid social security throughout his life, figuring it would provide for his security, filing two years ago only to learn he didn’t have enough credits. A self-employed carpenter, he made his final payment to social security on Memorial day and hopes now he has enough credits to receive a pension.
Living a stone’s throw from the beach since January, Dirk has stayed put since the pandemic started. Using a public restroom and a cold shower, he says, helps him cool off during summer. One wonders how he’ll react come winter.
Forever an optimist
Remarkably, Dirk remains an optimist, because regardless of whether one shares his religious belief, it’s his personal faith and recognition of humanity’s oneness that gives him hope.
Grateful for the food gifts passersby give him, Dirk feels that locals actually care. Beat cops allow him to remain there, as long as he’s on the sidewalk, ten feet away from the beach, and keeps the place clean.
Local government has allowed for the encampment during the pandemic, but by law, it’s a crime to live in a tent on the street. The problem is, that tent dwellers have adopted a mindset of bohemian freedom. Living on the street also saves paying municipal taxes and rent— something they’ll need to contend with when the pandemic is over.
Dirk has got to the point, that even if offered housing, he wants to remain in a tent and preferably on the beach, where the sand is softer on his bones. He’s aware that his presence disturbs local tax-paying residents.
US unemployment trends in the last four years
It would be reasonable to look at earning figures to understand the root cause of homelessness. The US unemployment stats in 2020 read like a heart-attack in a downward trend that’s been happening since 2008. COVID has spiked the numbers like Everest, a cruel assault on the global jobs market.
With U.S. unemployment down to 6.9% from 14.7% in April, economic recovery signs are evident. The government has yet to distribute Pfizer’s vaccine, and by the time it takes to kick in, the damage may be irreparable.
Yet there’s optimism that 2021 will surpass this year’s economic debacle and set the US on the road to long-term recovery. A lot depends on the incoming administration’s economic policies, bipartisanship, and whether politicians can see the bigger picture.
The increase in vulnerable aging homeless
For those that can financially ride out this period, unemployment is a trend that can be reversed with relative efficiency, as witnessed with the turnaround in employment numbers in the last quarter.
It’s the individuals and families that can’t survive who face devastation as wrecked livelihoods have driven thousands to the streets, a daunting reality from which to recover.
The latest research has estimated that close to 40 million people in the US are at risk of losing their homes in the next several months without immediate federal aid.
Reports since 2016 estimate that municipalities need $11.5 billion to accommodate 400,000 shelter beds. An aging population over 65 is more vulnerable to unemployment and becoming homeless. Furthermore, this group has a greater risk of COVID exposure than any other group in the US.
In Los Angeles, research shows that the 65+ population will grow by over 50% percent in the next five years.
“On any given night, New York City and Los Angeles County, two areas heavily impacted by COVID-19, are estimated to have 70,000 and 58,000 homeless individuals, respectively.”Endlesshomelessness.org
Estimates show that over half a million people in the United States live in a homeless shelter or reside in a place unfit for habitation, a number that’s accelerated exponentially as a result of the pandemic. It’s only going to get worse.
What can we do to help?
How we respond or don’t respond to this rising crisis reflects upon our society and each one of us.
Several public figures have touted their escape from the West Coast’s reality— one excuse is the continuous lockdowns, but the main reason is the growing number of homeless camped outside their front door and neighborhood. The flight from the chaos highlights the urgent need for a call to action.
Governers in California and New York have allowed this prolonged tragedy to grow out of all proportion. There are programs to get homeless seniors into hotel rooms, with assigned case managers. Apparently, it’s not enough to cope with the crisis, as Dirk is still out on the street.
The need for better reporting
The elephant the media is ignoring is the upward spiral of the homeless that’s been happening long before 2020. The root cause is not unemployment. Setting aside this year’s gargantuan anomaly, unemployment has been on a downward trend for over a decade.
The primary problem lies in the level of earnings, and where high-skilled manufacturing is happening globally. In the US there’s been a trend towards lower-skilled lower-paying jobs. People may have jobs but can’t afford the high cost of housing and local taxes, stats not reflected in the unemployment numbers.
The move to online business, and technological developments, expose an apparent lack of workforce skills, having a dire effect on the economy. Manufacturing has been transferred to the Far East, primarily China. Just think about where your smartphone is made. What’s left for many in the US are lower-skilled jobs with an income that doesn’t match the cost of living or housing. Consequential depression, drug and alcohol abuse compound the issues.
A higher minimum wage is a stop-gap measure that won’t solve the problem in the long-run, and will only make it worse, forcing highly leveraged businesses to close. The real solution is the return of organic high-skilled employment with higher earnings.
Game-changing investment in jobs and retraining
Whichever administration is in charge in 2021, the US needs to continue developing opportunity zones in impoverished areas that encourage business growth through financial support and tax incentives. In these areas, cities must keep crime at bay, and certainly not defund the police, but rather invest more in training, and improving ways to work with communities. Ask any local resident, and they’ll tell you the same.
Most of all, the country needs a game-changing scheme addressing all ages to retrain the workforce with relevant skills. Such an initiative will take time and requires a minimum income for trainees. Accordingly, work retraining programs can obligate work contracts for guaranteed jobs, in the opportunity zones.
Another major issue is the need for an overhaul of what universities are charging for higher-education. It certainly doesn’t mean giving free education, which leads to abuse and a lack of accountability. Firstly, why should taxpayers be forced to pay for your choice in education?
Secondly, no one ever appreciates anything given away free. However, it does mean addressing the gross inefficiencies in the way universities are managed. The cost of education in the UK and Europe is a lot closer to a more sane approach to higher-education, where fees are more affordable, and repayment linked to later earnings.
In the UK, for example, there is a standard rate for undergraduate studies charged by all universities, however, the higher-ranking universities demand higher entrance requirements and are graded accordingly. Research grants are provided to universities that perform better and peer-reviewed.
A bipartisan approach to solving homelessness
The growing disparity in the US is evident. It’s notable that those with a steady guaranteed income, such as politicians, local government, scientists, and those working from home or in ‘essential services,’ are so easy to insist upon or accept further lockdowns.
When your income is secure and matches your cost of living, it’s easy to ignore the economic ramifications of lockdowns and the cost of living for low-paid tenuous jobs or self-employed, small businesses. If you’re looking to retrain the workforce, not much is going to happen during a lockdown.
COVID for the vulnerable is a frightening prospect, and the homeless are most vulnerable. Just as significant are lockdowns that have a more stark and long term economic consequence. Not only should states open the economy for business with precautionary measures, but municipalities need to take steps to invest much more to curb the homelessness wave.
It’s frightening how ‘The House’ could be so callous, playing partisan politics with the coronavirus relief bill, the price of which being the lives of the most vulnerable.
Incentivized retraining schemes will not answer the needs of an aging homeless population in the short-term. That requires permanent sheltered housing on a mass scale. At the very least, we can contribute to the organizations that are aiding and bringing notice to this urgent cause.
Little has been achieved for the homeless by local government in major cities. We can be grateful for the nonprofits such as Shelter Partnership that carryout inspiring work to help the homeless on a shoe-string budget.
For a comprehensive list of homelessness organizations
Listen to Dirk
“We have a meeting of two diseases, the Coronavirus and the ‘Us and Them’ disease.”Dirk Reed, Tent Dweller, Venice Beach, Ca.
Dirk’s wish is that we recognize each other as one and the same.
Homelessness is something many wish to ignore, until you can’t.
The truth is, Dirk’s right, there is no us and them. Our biggest failure is to recognize the inexpressible value of human life. We have the resources and knowledge. We just need the sense and willingness to apply them.
Witnessing fellow human beings living by the wayside is a justification for insomnia. It is astonishing that in this day with mankind’s’ advances in technology and abundant resources, that growing numbers of people and families are living in a tent or on the street.