by Gregory Saville
Last week I walked rain-soaked streets in Manhattan and in ten blocks, 15 different homeless people approached me asking for cash. A few suffered mental illness, some a demon intoxicant, and others the unfairness of circumstance. One reached out for dollars with his left hand while he clutched a cell phone in his right. Everyone's story was different - except they were all on the street.
I often feel an apoplectic irrelevance at moments like that. Why does homelessness persist? What can be done? We have blogged many times about homelessness in Reducing homelessness, part 1 & 2, Sidewalk sleeping in Toronto, Hostile architecture and CPTED, and Dignity Village.
I’ve coauthored an ICA White Paper, on the topic, and Tarah Hodgkinson heads an ICA Homelessness committee to seek alternatives. But blogs and White Papers don't solve the problem. What can we do?
Big cities have always had homeless but for the first time in a very long time, the number of unsheltered homeless people is rising. Bucking a decade-long decline, homeless numbers have been increasing since 2017.
No surprise: New York and Los Angeles - the largest cities - had the largest numbers (over 130,000 combined).
Big surprise: Seattle and Silicon Valley’s San Jose had the 3rd and 6th largest homeless populations. Apparently, street living in those high tech cities bypasses the riches flowing from companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook who also reside there.
Of the smaller cities, all but 2 of the 10 worst homeless cities were in warmer climate states (Florida, California, and Hawaii) where winter snows are absent.
Overall, numbers are down. Some kinds of homelessness continue to decline, child homelessness and veteran homelessness. Further, some states do much better at taking care of homeless people with overnight shelters. New York and Massachusetts house almost all of their homeless overnight (95% each). On the other hand, California, Nevada and Mississippi house only 49% to 68% of their homeless overnight.
There are some good news stories from Canada. Since 2015, the Canadian city of Medicine Hat, Saskatchewan (population 60,000) has eradicated homelessness in their city.
Clearly, negligent cities have much to learn from others, including the homeless themselves.
SafeGrowth advocate Kallan Lyons worked at a Toronto homeless shelter and helped produce Streets to Script, a book of writing in the words of those in the shelter. One resident, Phoenix, writes:
I sit and ponder,
Why life has turned out this way,
I had thought my life would turn out differently…
I will make a better life for myself,
So I sit and ponder,
How my life can move forward.
Yes, Phoenix, you can move forward. We all can do better to help you.