Amid end to COVID help, homelessness surging in many cities

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — In California’s capital, massive tent encampments have risen along the American River and highway overpasses have become havens for homeless people, whose numbers have jumped a staggering nearly 70% over two years.

Among the 9,300 without a home is Eric Santos, who lost his job at a brewery and was evicted from his apartment in July. Now he carries a list of places where free meals are available and a bucket to mix soap and water to wash his hands, and to sit on.

“The bucket is part of my life now,” the 42-year-old said, calling it his version of Wilson, the volleyball that becomes Tom Hanks’ companion in the film “Castaway.”

Cities big and small around the country are facing a similar experience to Sacramento.

Fueled by a long-running housing shortage, rising rent prices and the economic hangover from the pandemic, the overall number of homeless in a federal government report to be released in coming months is expected to be higher than the 580,000 unhoused before the coronavirus outbreak, the National Alliance to End Homelessness said.

The Associated Press tallied results from city-by-city surveys conducted earlier this year and found the number of people without homes is up overall compared with 2020 in areas reporting results so far.

Some of the biggest increases are in West Coast cities such as Sacramento and Portland, Oregon, where growing homelessness has become a humanitarian crisis and political football over the past decade. Numbers are also up about 30% in South Dakota and Prince George’s County, Maryland, and 15% in Asheville, North Carolina.

The data comes from the Point in Time counts the federal government requires communities to conduct to reflect how many people are without homes on a given winter night. The counts usually rely on volunteer census-takers and are always imprecise. This year’s tallies were conducted amid the pandemic and advocates caution changed counting methods could have thrown off results.

Research has shown places seeing spikes in homelessness often lack affordable housing. Making matters worse, pandemic government relief programs — including anti-eviction measures, emergency rental assistance and a child tax credit that kept people housed who may have been on the streets otherwise — are ending.

Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the counts are generally rising more where housing costs are jumping the fastest — but the government’s response makes a difference, too.

Some communities where numbers are down, he said, “are really looking at housing people versus criminalizing people and putting them in encampments.”

In Sacramento, where rents are soaring and officials disagree on how best to deal with the problem, homelessness has jumped 68% from 2020 to 2022 — the most among larger cities reporting results so far.

The surge has been driven in part by the city’s legacy of being more affordable than other California cities, which has attracted new residents, overwhelming the housing market. People moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area, 90 miles (145 kilometers) to the southwest, have flooded Sacramento with more potential homeowners and renters, driving up prices.

A Zillow analysis found the average rent in July was $2,300 — a 28% increase since July 2019, before the pandemic began. Sacramento County’s median income was about $70,000 in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The crisis has deepened even as things have improved in other California cities that have contended for years with homelessness. Sacramento’s efforts to address the problem have been marred by years of squabbles between the city and county governments.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has made reducing homelessness a priority since taking office in 2017. The city now has more than 900 beds in shelters and motels, compared to about 100 five years ago and has moved to ban single-family zoning, a move that could make it easier to build more housing.

But so far, it hasn’t been enough.

“People are becoming homeless much faster than we are getting them off the street,” Steinberg told the AP.

Santos is among them. He’s been able to sign up for food assistance but is still on a waiting list to access other benefits, he said. Each night he hunts for a park bench that feels safe to sleep on. When he lost a suitcase to broken wheels, he got rid of some of his warmer clothing, a decision he regrets as the fall evenings get colder.

“Luckily I’ve been able to keep afloat with what I have,” he said.

Steinberg has advocated for adopting a legal right to shelter and a legal obligation for people to accept it when offered. The approach has drawn some criticism from advocates who say it’s just a means of taking the problem out of the public eye without providing meaningful help for those who need it.

County officials voted in August to ban camping along Sacramento’s American River Parkway, with a misdemeanor charge for people who don’t comply. City voters will decide in November on a ballot measure requiring the city to open hundreds more shelter beds. But it would only take effect if the county agrees to pony up money for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Still, the rise in homelessness is not uniform across the country.

In Boston, the number of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters has dropped 25% over two years as advocates focused on finding permanent housing for those on the streets the longest.

In some cities, “housing first” policies intended to move the homeless into permanent homes have paid off. And while the pandemic brought economic chaos, an eviction moratorium, boosted unemployment payments and family tax credits prevented some people from becoming homeless at all.

Along with Boston, numbers have fallen by about 20% or more in Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Even in California, homeless counts are down in San Francisco, and growth has slowed significantly in Los Angeles.

The numbers have also dropped in California’s Orange County, where there have been extensive efforts to remove encampments — though some advocates there question the accuracy of the count.

In Boston, Steven Hamilton moved into a new apartment in September after decades staying on a friend or relative’s couch or in a homeless shelter.

With the help of a program run by the Boston Medical Center, he was able to get a subsidized apartment in a public housing development. His portion of monthly rent is $281 — or about 30% of his Social Security payments.

“I’m grateful,” he said. “I am not looking to move nowhere else. I am going to stay here until eternity. I lost a lot of stuff. I’m not going through that again.”

After what he called a “horrible nightmare” in a shelter with residents injecting drugs in the bathroom, the studio apartment has changed his outlook. He’s planning to get furniture, save money for a car and hopes to invite his family for Thanksgiving.

“I have a place I can call my own,” he said.

Hamilton’s studio apartment is the result of a Boston strategy whereby the city and area nonprofits use extensive outreach to get people who’ve been on the streets for over a year into apartments and then provide services such as drug treatment and life-skills training like budgeting with the help of case managers.

Since 2019, annual funding in Boston for homeless programs has jumped from $31 million to over $51 million.

Those efforts were bolstered last year by a city program that pulled together a list of homeless individuals to target for housing and other services. The city also moved to shut down one of its biggest homeless encampments, going tent-to-tent to assess the needs of those living there and referring more than 150 to shelters and other housing.

The efforts have not been seamless. There have been reports of a cleared-out tent city re-emerging. And family homelessness numbers, though down from 2020, have ticked up in the past year.

Still, the city has been able to reduce the numbers of homeless people to about 6,000, down 25% since 2020.

Boston’s shelters have become less crowded even as Zillow found the city’s average rent rose to $2,800 this summer — up 13% from three years earlier.

Housing advocates say prioritizing chronically homeless people ensures funds have the greatest impact, since the long-term homeless spend so much time in shelters. It also costs less to provide permanent housing than temporary shelter.

Lewis Lopez is among the success stories.

After cycling in and out of Boston shelters for several years, Lopez finally secured keys to his own apartment. No longer fearing his possessions would be stolen or he would get into fights over food, the 61-year-old felt he had finally gotten his life back.

“I felt so free, like a ton of bricks were lifted off my shoulders,” Lopez said of the studio apartment he has lived in for five years, paid for partly with federal funds.

“I felt like part of society again,” he said.

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Casey reported from Boston. Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Kavish Harjai in Los Angeles contributed.

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Harjai is a corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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