How homelessness, climate change and the California fires are all connected

Monte Rio volunteer firefighter Gabriela Gibson sprays down hot spots on a half-acre fire in timber above Monte Rio, Calif., after a controlled burn crossed containment lines and wind blew embers in to the timber. (Kent Porter/Santa Rosa Press Democrat via AP, File)

Last Tuesday the L.A. Times reported that the Skirball fire, which recently roared through the wealthy Bel Air area of Los Angeles, may have been started by people cooking food at a homeless encampment in a nearby canyon.

The news adds another layer to the story of California’s fires, which Governor Jerry Brown claimed last week represented “the new normal” in our climate-altering world. “This could be something that happens every year or every few years,” he said. California is “this wonderful place—but a place that’s getting hotter.”

Some in the area described those in the canyon as “survivalists” or “illegal campers,” people who simply refuse to live in homes. It is a description that fundamentally ignores the realities of homelessness in Los Angeles today: As reported in America earlier this year, the number of people on the streets here increased 23 percent between January 2016 and January 2017. Roughly 58,000 people were on the streets, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country’s homeless population.

This year the country as a whole saw an uptick in its homeless population for the first time since 2010.

Similar increases are occurring throughout the state, and this year the country as a whole saw an uptick in its homeless population for the first time since 2010. Larry Hurst, director of social services for St. Vincent de Paul in Los Angeles, finds many factors at work. “The supply is just not keeping up with the demand,” he says. Also, wages are not keeping up with prices, as landlords respond to the high demand by raising rents, sometimes by incredible amounts.

Paradoxically, this growth in homelessness is happening at the same time that, at a national level, Hurst finds more work is being done to coordinate services so as to most effectively help people living on the streets. In the last year Los Angeles County has passed two propositions to finance thousands of new low-cost housing units and to provide services for the chronically homeless, which the LA Times called the “key to finally ending homelessness in Los Angeles.” As that money starts to flow, Hurst is hopeful that the situation of people in the area will improve. “There’s some funding that’s been rolled out [already], but it’s the tip of the iceberg.”

“If I can recognize where I feel a little homeless for whatever reason inside myself, then it kind of helps me be able to talk to that person.”

Los Angeles seminarian Deacon Spencer Lewerenz, whose Beloved Movement partners with other organizations trying to connect homeless and non-homeless Angelenos, finds the main issue today is not funding but a lack of meaningful relationships. “There are more and more resources,” he says. “And it isn’t helping.”

“My experience is there’s a lot of bitterness and despair among the homeless population because they feel like nobody cares,” Lewerenz says. That includes the agencies offering services: Some living on the streets tell Lewerenz they have stopped seeking help because of the way they’re treated. “If the resources are there but you’re being treated like less than a person and you’re being interrogated and you’re being treated like you’re a criminal, which is what happens, then you’re not going to be able to receive those services,” he explains.

Pope Francis’ 2015 document “Laudato Si’” is widely thought of as his environmental encyclical. Yet one of the most striking parts of the document is its insistence that climate issues and social issues are indivisible. “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social,” the pope writes, “but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (No. 139).

An “integral ecology,” he argues, begins at the level of relationship: “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (No. 230).

For Lewerenz and Beloved Movement, this comes down to people being present to one another in the humble truths of who we are. “The term we keep using is ‘our common homelessness,’” he says. “If I can recognize where I feel a little homeless for whatever reason inside myself, then it kind of helps me be able to talk to that person.

“And that’s where I think the real transformation is going to happen.”

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Richard Bell
3 years 1 month ago

Please, clarify for me the idea of this essay. All I get is that there are resources to house everyone in California but these resources are not used because the people distributing them are not talking to those who need them in a way that makes the latter feel highly valued.
Now, the idea I get from this essay is probably not really what Mr McDermott or the editors intended. What did Mr McDermott or the editors really intend?

Kelley Cutler
3 years 1 month ago

Technically there is housing (last I heard there is 6 empty houses for every homeless person on the street in the US), but there is nowhere near enough available resources for people experiencing homelessness.

Richard Bell
3 years 1 month ago

OK. One of my friends owns four houses that she uses from time to time and lends out from time to time but otherwise keeps empty. There are lots of people like her, owning multiple dwellings but not renting them. Is that a substantial factor in Californians' homelessness? Not according to this essay. Here is what this essay seems to propound as the most important factor in Californians’ homelessness:
“Los Angeles seminarian Deacon Spencer Lewerenz . . . finds the main issue today is not funding but a lack of meaningful relationships. ‘There are more and more resources,’ he says. ‘And it isn’t helping.’
“’My experience is there’s a lot of bitterness and despair among the homeless population because they feel like nobody cares,’ Lewerenz says. That includes the agencies offering services: Some living on the streets tell Lewerenz they have stopped seeking help because of the way they’re treated. ‘If the resources are there but you’re being treated like less than a person and you’re being interrogated and you’re being treated like you’re a criminal, which is what happens, then you’re not going to be able to receive those services,’” he explains.”

Kelley Cutler
3 years 1 month ago

This isn't accurate... although a lot of people experiencing homelessness have begun to lose hope. Read my comment below... I attempted to briefly break down the issue.

Kelley Cutler
3 years 1 month ago

I appreciate you writing about homelessness, but I have to disagree with your conclusion. Homelessness is a major systemic issue across our country and that requires more than just an individual connection (although that's a good thing and a start).

Between 1976 and 2001, the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department's total budget has dropped by more than $45 billion per year, with the biggest drop occurring between 1980 and 1983. The funding has stayed relatively flat since. This is a major contributing factor of our nation wide homelessness crisis. The resources are not there.

I'm a human rights organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco... and I'm Catholic. Here in San Francisco we don't have any faith based groups organizing on the social justice side of homelessness (the 2 feet of love in action... charity & justice). That's not just here in SF... that's pretty much the status quo across our nation. I attended the US World Meeting of Popular Movements and Pope Francis specifically asked the organizers there to be discussing homelessness... and yet it wasn't on the agenda (well, until I advocated for it to be),

The involvement of faith communities in social justice is imperative if we wish to end homelessness. Without justice, there is no charity. We recently had a visit from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and he brakes the situation down well in his letter about what he witnessed in our country...

Richard Bell
3 years 1 month ago

I cannot be sure I understand your comment much better than I understand the essay.
I think you are probably right that people in California are homeless mainly because California lacks sufficient housing units for the poor.
Why has California (among other states) this shortage of housing for the poor? You cite the reduction in HUD’s total budget, not that part of its budget going to construction or preservation of housing for the poor. And you cite specifically the reduction in HUD’s total budget between 1976 and 2001.
In the early ‘90s there began HUD’s $32 billion HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which granted money to local governments for housing construction and renovation and repair and down-payment assistance. The HOME program – not the total budget of HUD – is a measure of federal resources likely to ameliorate homelessness caused by shortage of housing for the poor. Why do you not mention it?
The HOME program to some extent may support your complaint of inadequate resources. That is not because the funds were paltry. That is because the HOME program was graft-ridden. A very large percentage of HOME-funded construction projects authorized by local governments were managed by incompetents or thieves; projects were delayed or stopped uncompleted or existed only as paper. Hundreds of millions of HOME dollars were spent on projects that left little or nothing built. In 2011, Congress responded to the scandal by cutting the HOME program’s budget 38 %, to one billion dollars.
What are you advocating?

Kelley Cutler
3 years 1 month ago

Homelessness is a complex issue with many factors and I didn't know how policy wonky you wanted me to get about it. Here is the policy overview (at least up until 2010 when we wrote this report)...

1970s Mental health consumers begin to be deinstitutionalized — many people with mental illnesses end up homeless or in jail.
1973 President Nixon places a moratorium on all subsidized a ordable housing production. Congress ends moratorium 18 months later.
1974 HUD Section 8 program replaces Section 23, marking a federal move toward demand-side rental subsidies.
1976 HUD Budget Authority: $57.7 billion; tax expenditures for home ownership: $33.2 billion (in 2004 constant dollars). Homelessness is not a systemic problem.
1976 HUD subsidizes the construction of 203,046 new housing units.
1978 HUD Low/Moderate-Income Housing Budget Authority: $77.3 billion (in 2004 constant dollars).
1979 USDA Section 515 program creates 38,650 rural a ordable housing units.
Late 1970s – early 1980s Urban Re- newal largely becomes domain of local governments and is associated with “commercial revitalization,” gentrification and demolition of cheap housing stock.
1981 President Ronald Reagan takes office and dismantles New Deal and Great Society social programs designed to assist the poor, most significantly the federal funding of affordable housing production.
1983 HUD Low/Moderate-Income Housing Budget Authority: $17.6 billion (in 2004 constant dollars); 77 percent less than 1978 budget authority. Contemporary mass home- lessness emerges nationwide.
1983 Emergency homeless shelters, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, open across the country.
Mid-1980s Local governments and police begin enforcing vagrancy laws and passing ordinances that target people experiencing homelessness.
1986 The Tax Reform Act of 1986 creates the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, encouraging private developers and investors to build a ordable housing by offering tax credits through the IRS.
1987 Congress passes the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, the first major federal legislation devoted solely to addressing homelessness.
1987 Supportive Housing emerges as a strategy for permanently housing disabled people experiencing homelessness.
1988 Rural homelessness is a growing crisis largely ignored.
1990 Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act re-affirms commitment made in 1949 to adequately house all Americans; funding does not match aspiration.
1992 Congress funds Urban Revitalization Demonstration (URD) in response to a National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing report. URD becomes HOPE VI in 1999, leading to the loss of large amounts of guaranteed affordable housing.
1994 HUD develops the Continuum of Care model in which homeless people are provided with a “continuum” of programs to prepare them to move into permanent housing.
1995 USDA Section 515 program creates only 2,853 rural affordable housing units. The program created 30,175 units in 1976.
1996 HUD Low/Moderate-Income Housing Budget Authority: $19.2 billion (in 2004 constant dollars); 75 percent less than 1978 budget.
1996 Funding for construction of new public housing units halted. Over 150,000 public housing units are lost over the next 14 years.
1996 President Clinton signs Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) into law. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families replaces Aid to Families with Dependent Children, ending welfare as an entitlement program. PRWORA establishes a lifetime assistance limit of 5 years and a workfare component, forcing people into low-wage jobs without health bene ts or childcare.
1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act passes, mandating that poor people provide community service in exchange for rental subsidies, unlike homeowners for mortgage deductions. Provisions of the act make it nearly impossible for public housing authorities to construct new units.
2000 National Alliance to End Homelessness launches Ten-Year Plans to End Homelessness.
Early 2000s Housing First becomes centerpiece of Chronic Homeless Initiative and Ten-Year Plans to End Homelessness. Funding comes from limited HUD homeless assistance dollars rather than HUD housing dollars, resulting in the program only meeting a small fraction of the need.
2002 The George W. Bush administration reestablishes the US Interagency Council on Homelessness — an agency created under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act to “coordinate the Federal response to homelessness” that was disbanded under President Bill Clinton.
2005 USDA Section 515 program creates 783 rural affordable housing units.
2006 37 million people live in poverty in the United States.
2007 Federal tax expenditures on home ownership: $102.8 billion; HUD Low/Moderate-Income Housing Assistance Budget Authority: $30.9 billion (in 2004 constant dollars).
2008 Recession sweeps across United States and world: homelessness spikes dramatically, especially amongst families, and tent cities reemerge across the country.
2008 The 39.8 million people live in poverty in the United States.
2008 The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 establishes the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF). The goal of NHTF is to build or preserve 1.5 million units of affordable housing over 10 years.
2008 There are 355 Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness that cover 860 cities across the country, yet homelessness is rising.
2009 The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passes. The “stimulus package” contains $1.5 billion for Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program and $2.25 billion in HUD funding for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program.
2009 The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH) passes. HEARTH continues to require local communities to implement Housing First with a small pool of homeless assistance dollars.
2009 The Helping Families Save their Homes Act of 2009 passes. Title VII of the bill ensures tenants of foreclosed rental properties are given 90 days to find alternative housing.
2009 Roughly 3.4 million families experience foreclosure — 60 percent of foreclosures are caused by unemployment.
2010 Foreclosure filings made on 367,056 properties in March alone.
2010 Federal budget for discretionary military spending increases to $663.8 billion.
2010 HUD unveils Transforming Rental Assistance, a plan to leverage private sector investment by mortgaging o 280,000 public housing units.
2010 As many as 3.5 million people are homeless in the United States.

That the breakdown of the policy history. If you want to read more you can go here...

What am I advocating? Many things because there is no silver bullet, but in general, the end to the criminalization of homelessness and the investment into housing and resources. Housing has become a commodity, but it should be a human right. It's shameful that so many children, seniors and people with disabilities are forced to sleep on our streets... in a country with such wealth.

Randal Agostini
3 years 1 month ago

The essay has a lot of truth, which may be found in working for your local St. Vincent De. Paul outlet, which may provide many different services for the poor and homeless. All the sites are operated by volunteers, who undergo specific training for the order, which teaches first and foremost the human dignity of every person. Each "client" is Christ seeking us to open our hearts to our neighbor, but we are human and we fail in so many ways.
The work can be frustrating, because so many clients try to take advantage of our generosity. Many times I have seen people suffering genuine hardships leave, because they have not been treated properly.
The silver bullet is ourselves - not any government program. The government has a role to play - in our case providing SVdP with surplus food, from the excessive bounty of our agricultural community, but it is the person to person contact that is vitally important.
America more and more is a secular society, promoting self before all else. This is the very heart of our problem, for Christ asks us to divest ourselves of self and seek the welfare of others. It is in the giving of ourselves that we find Christ - in others.

Joseph Clavijo
3 years 1 month ago

Well said Randal. Thanks you!

Tim Donovan
3 years 1 month ago

I won't pretend that I know the most effective solution to the huge problem of homeless people. In past years (before I retired from working as a Special Education teacher, and in various other capacities with disabled people for more than twenty years) I regularly made modest contributions to two homeless shelters associated with the Church, St. John's Hospice and Mercy Hospice in Philadelphia. I still on occasion contribute to St. John's Hospice. I believe that both private charitable efforts as well as government programs to assist homeless people are necessary. I have read Pope Francis ' encyclical, Laudato Si, and agree that climate change is a real and serious problem that should be addressed by the nations of the world. I regret that President Trump has withdrawn our nation's support from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. I do occasionally make modest contributions to the Catholic Climate Covenant, which works to address climate change and related matters while upholding the Church's pro-life teaching on abortion.
Pope Francis in Laudato Si made clear both his sincere, serious concern for protecting our earth, while simultaneously opposing the violence of abortion. The Pope soundly criticized "the extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some" (I admit that unfortunately I sometimes am guilty of consuming too much of the earth's resources). But Pope Francis also wrote in his encyclical: "When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities --to offer just a few examples--it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected."

Joseph Clavijo
3 years 1 month ago

I believe that God is calling us "back to the garden". In business, when we saw ourselves straying off course, our revenues adversely effected by competition or something in the environment, we would always "go back to the basics" and find a way to "repent" - to simply change what we were doing and realign ourselves with the current market environment.

I see God calling us back to "our basics". To go back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden. Imagine what that must have been like, to be at the beginning of "relationship" with our Creator, Sister Earth, and with each other. To retrace our footsteps, and apply what we learned through our shared experiences and to repent, to simply change course and realign ourselves with today's environmental reality.

This is not about solving problems. Jesus did not become incarnate to solve problems. Jesus came to reconcile and redeem, and showed us how to do the same by loving God and neighbor. May it be so for us in Christ.

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