In recent years concern has been expressed that the number of homeless persons in the USA has ranged between 500,000 to 600,000, too high for such a rich country. However now the number of homeless people here appears likely to increase very rapidly in the near future. Why?
Nearly one-third of the households, mostly in the lower-income groups and racial minorities, live in rented houses, and their condition has been becoming increasingly precarious in a situation of increasing rents. On average during 2000-2018 there were 3.6 million eviction notices in a year. Then came the pandemic and there was a sudden drop in the income of renters and a further reduced inability to pay rent. To avoid a big tragedy in the middle of the pandemic, rent moratoriums were ordered by courts and several authorities which kept getting extended. However now the period of these moratoriums is more or less over. At the same time rents have increased at about 25% compared to the situation before the pandemic. The situation is so difficult that according to the Census Bureau 3.8 million people are likely to face eviction proceedings during the next two months.
Of course not all those who face eviction proceedings become homeless. Some are likely to find shelter with relatives and friends, some may be helped by welfare measures or charities, some cases may drag on. Nevertheless due to the unprecedented number of evictions proceedings likely to be initiated in the near future, the number of homeless people may increase as never before.
This apart, the highly tragic and tense situations faced by people in the course of eviction proceedings are themselves an issue of serious concern, regardless of whether these result in homelessness or not. On December 15 2021 Eli Saslow wrote a feature in The Washington Post on the daily routine life of an elderly police constable Lennie who has been charged with the responsibility of evicting those families or persons from their homes who have not been able to pay their rent.
Essentially his daily duty during the last two decades has been to go from house to house, based on a list of those households who have lagged behind in rent payment, carrying a gun as well as handcuffs, and evict them. Astonishingly, this single police constable has evicted 20,000 Arizonans from their homes over a period of 2 decades, or 1000 per year, or about 3 per day.
He is under instructions to complete an eviction in 10 minutes flat. His routine is to knock on a door unannounced, tell the household members to find whatever they can carry within 10 minutes (while making arrangements later with the landlord to collect other belongings). He generally follows his watch and his aim is achieved within the stipulated 10 minutes. This aim is achieved regardless of the fact that there are small children in the evicted household, or whether those being evicted have health problems.
He is by no means the only persons doing this, as the average number of eviction cases in the USA is about 10,000 per day or about 420 per hour, or about 7 per minute. In the case of most evictions, proceedings are biased against those facing evictions as landlords and owners have access to legal counsel while those facing evictions do not generally have such help. A large number of evicted people may face a temporary period of homelessness before they can move in with a friend or some relative, or start living in their car ( if they have one), or a shelter, or become homeless in a more vulnerable and open way.
Generally it is really difficult for renters receiving eviction notices to arrange the money needed to avoid eviction. Even in ordinary times this is not easy. A family may add up its dues and somehow collect the sum of, say, $2500 needed to make the due payment. When they take the money, they are told that as per the calculations on the landlord or owner side, including the fines for delayed payment, they have to pay perhaps double this amount. This is very difficult to arrange, so they are evicted. Once evicted, this is entered in their renting record and ability to rent another house in future is greatly reduced.
An important issue is why there are so many people who face a very precarious situation in terms of rental housing and for whom rent payment is an exceptionally high part of their total income. The legal minimum wage as well as the average actual wage earned by most renters is much below the income needed to rent a modest one bedroom apartment while meeting other essential expenses. There is no overall shortage of houses, in fact about 10% of the houses were found to be vacant according to the latest census data. However there is an acute shortage of houses in terms of what is affordable for the lower income groups. In California there are only 23 affordable houses for every 100 renters from extreme low income group. At national level there is a shortage of around 7 million affordable houses for low-income renters.
At present for every 10,000 USA people, 17 are homeless on any given day. Nearly 40% of the present homeless population in the USA comprises of African Americans. About 20% are kids. The average age of a homeless person in the USA is reported to be only 50 years. Homeless persons face many additional problems in finding a job, or even retaining their existing employment. There is also a great loss of dignity and self-esteem. Children and women suffer the most. In the report by Eli Saslow, there are several moving pictures, but one that simply refuses to go away from mind is that of a young mother faced suddenly with eviction, her 3 year son clinging to her leg.
Despite the apparent and shocking injustice of all this, housing and habitation policies have generally been neglectful towards affordable housing needs. Housing projects for low-income groups are often opposed by richer people who feel that this will drive their status and property value. Promised wage increases have been delayed for too long and President Biden has gone back on his earlier promises in this context. All this focuses attention on the unacceptably high injustices and distorted priorities of a particularly ruthless, narrow minded, unenlightened and self-centered phase of American capitalism.
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Protecting Earth for Children and Man over Machine—A Path Towards Peace.