For a city as opulent as San Francisco, it’s long been jarring to see the extreme poverty of those experiencing homelessness on its streets. If you walk around downtown, tents, makeshift cardboard beds and human excrement can be seen littering the sidewalks. Impoverished people lie on the ground as a blur of highly paid professionals whiz by.
In 2018, a U.N. official visited San Francisco on a world tour examining housing conditions. She was shocked by what she saw. Her official report concluded that the city’s treatment of unhoused people “constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment and is a violation of multiple human rights, including rights to life, housing, health, water, and sanitation.” The number of homeless San Franciscans has only grown since then to more than 8,000 people, most of whom sleep on the streets, not in shelters.
San Francisco is pretty typical of major American cities these days, especially on the West Coast. Tent cities filled with poverty-stricken people have sprouted up from San Diego to Seattle. As of January 2020, California alone had about 151,000 inhabitants experiencing homelessness.
There are many contributors to the problem. The horrors of childhood trauma and poverty, mental illness, and chronic drug abuse surely add to the likelihood that someone lives on the streets. But Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says the primary cause of the crisis is simple: Housing has gotten way too scarce and expensive.
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“It’s sort of a game of musical chairs”
A few years ago, a team of economists at Zillow found that once cities cross a threshold where the typical resident must spend more than a third of their income on housing, homelessness begins to spike rapidly. When incomes don’t keep pace with the cost of rent, a cascade effect ripples through the housing market