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  • Robert Farago

The Root Cause of Homelessness?

What The Atlantic Wants You To Believe

Surveys reflect the survey-takers’ bias. So it’s no surprise that the University of California, San Francisco’s California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness concludes that the homeless are homeless because they can’t afford a home.

Nor is it a surprise that Atlantic magazine is all over the UCSF’s Towards a New Understanding survey. Writer Jerusalem Demsas’ opening salvo is down with the slickness.

Homelessness is primarily a function of the broader housing-unaffordability crisis, which in turn is primarily a function of how difficult local governments have made building new housing in the places that need it the most.

UC San Francisco’s study was based on interviews with 3,200 Golden State homeless, “selected intentionally to provide a representative sample.” In partnership with “a wide array of community stakeholders.” Including 365 “in-depth interviews.”

Nowhere in the report’s 95 pages do you find the actual questions used. But it does end with 35 caveats masquerading as footnotes.

“Most individuals who were undocumented or recent immigrants were not eligible during the study period” And “We did not ask those exiting prisons, jails, or hospitals .”

Anyone examining the UCSF survey outside the hallowed halls of academia can see that Towards a New Understanding is a study in confirmation bias.

Anyone who doesn’t share that bias, that is. Unlike Mr. Jerusalem, who parrots the study’s conclusions without an scintilla of skepticism.

The most frequently reported reason for loss of housing was reduction of income due to unemployment or a decrease in work hours. Economic reasons were followed by two social ones: conflict among residents, and concerns about imposing on roommates or family members. These social reasons would, in a more affordable environment, lead simply to a change of address, not homelessness.

So unemployment, low wages and cohabitation conflict are the root causes of California’s homelessness problem. And affordable housing is the solution.

Sounds reasonable, especially when you peruse the cherry-picked interview excerpts.

Read out of context, they lead you to believe that homeless people are simply downtrodden victims of our economic system, fully capable of holding down a job, paying bills and living peaceably with their neighbors. If only they could afford housing!

Such people exist, and there’s plenty of help available for them. According to, The City by the Bay is spending $1.45b to “end homelessness.” Around $70k per homeless person.

Also true: the sane, sober, “down but not out” victims of economic misfortune account for a tiny percentage of California’s homeless population.

A small measure of this reality somehow manages to sneak through Mr. Jerusalem’s “analysis” of the UCSF survey.

More than half of respondents said the housing they could afford was way too far from jobs or medical care, unsafe, unserved by public transportation, or too far from their children or families. Respondents also mentioned obstacles such as housing discrimination, lack of support in finding suitable affordable housing, years’ long wait times for housing, lack of housing vouchers, and substance abuse—including drug use to stay awake and vigilant on the streets.

Drug use to stay safe on the streets? What drugs might those be?

Truth be told, the vast majority of California’s homeless population suffer from drug addiction and mental illness. Don’t take my word for it.

The Stanford University Institute for Economic Policy Research estimates that over 75 percent of the chronically homeless have substance abuse issues and/or severe mental illness.

These are people who can’t hold a job, pay bills or avoid causing public disorder. To say the least.

The real cause of California’s homelessness crisis? De-institutionalization.

In 1963, President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, channeling federal funds away from state mental institutions towards “community” care. State hospitals shut down, community care didn’t pick-up the slack.

The answer to California’s homelessness crisis isn’t new homes. It’s placing mentally ill/drug abusing homeless into institutional care. Against their will? Yes, subject to sensible legal caveats, for their and the general public’s sake.

That’s such a non-PC proposal that no one’s making it. It’s much easier to blame capitalism and housing-related public policy.

Every day that California and other expensive states across the country delay in building more housing is another future family turned out onto the street.

I’m not a huge fan of government intervention in, well, anything. But policies that encourage affordable housing for the free market are a noble pursuit.

Which makes the UCSF survey and its Atlantic magazine pimpage a somewhat decent landing, at the wrong airport.

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