The State Of California: Virus-Related Homelessness "Catastrophe Of The Greatest Magnitude"

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The ranks of the unemployed continue to swell, with more than 40 million Americans now out of work since the coronavirus pandemic began, almost five million of them here in California.

Meanwhile, homeless camps keep spreading and growing around the Bay Area, with one study projecting a 20% rise in homelessness in the state this year.

The numbers that came out today showed continued growth, but slowing growth. More than 212,000 Californians filed new jobless claims over the last week, which is a staggering number, but that’s actually the lowest number in more than two months, so there’s a sense that maybe we’ve bottomed out. Do you think we’ve started turning a corner here or are you bracing for deepening losses and the poverty that invariably follows?

I think we’re slowing down, the job losses seem to be slowing down, but it is true that we’re taking solace in the numbers that just a few short months ago would’ve lit most of our hair on fire. I think this is still really a troubling trend. We’re seeing really massive increases, people having to come on the public assistance at a time when the state budget is losing billions of dollars in revenue. All of these things have to work together and they’re really raising really serious concerns for millions of California families.

A Columbia University study projects a 20% homeless spike because of the pandemic. What’s the cumulative effect?

Homelessness was the number one issue for Gov. Gavin Newsom in his January budget and I think it was on the minds of every Californian in January. Then things just got dramatically worse. When you start talking about five million people losing their jobs and millions more losing their income because their hours have been reduced or their wages have been reduced, literally millions of Californians have not been able to pay their rent the last three months. We are really very, very worried at the Western Center about what’s going to happen to folks in California when this moratorium gets lifted on evictions. I don’t know if a 20% increase is the right number, I’m not disputing it, but I also don’t have any way to confirm that. I think most people in our world expect to see an increase in the number of people evicted, between 15% and 30%, based on the number of people who aren’t able to pay their rent right now.

Are there specific measures you’d like to see the state take beyond what’s already being done?

I think on this eviction issue, it’s absolutely critical we are proactive and do not allow this large volume of families to be moved on to the streets. It would be a public health catastrophe of the greatest magnitude. I think one thing that is being contemplated in Sacramento right now is an effort that would prevent evictions going forward and then have the state provide tax credits to landlords to pay for the back rent that people have not been able to make. Those tax credits would be redeemable in the future. In the meantime, people would not be evicted. I think we’re going to have to come up with a plan like that. It’s going to cost money, but it’s pennies on the dollar compared to what we’re going to pay if we allow millions of Californians to become homeless because of this COVID-19 crisis.

How is California going to come up with that necessary money?

Fortunately, our state has done a good job at saving money over the years. We had nearly $20 billion stocked away for a rainy day. It didn’t turn out to be a rainy day, but it turned out to be a pandemic. We do have that to fall back on. The state has some resources they can bring to the front that they have in the State Senate today. I think at the end of the day, we need Washington to step up with financial resources for states like California. Without that, I think we can get through one budget, but that second budget is going to be the one that we’re going to have to make a choice to really, significantly downsize programs. There’s no appetite to reduce programs, health care, public benefits, food programs, housing programs. Those are all high priority for everyone right now and I think we absolutely have to find ways to fund them, but we need the federal government to step up, no question.

The stock market is doing well, but how do you reconcile that with these growing numbers?

I do think the federal reserve has done a lot, not everything probably. But they have thrown a lot of financial support at the market in recent months. Some of us wish that maybe a few resources like that we’re going to help average Americans everyday. I think it’s had the effect of reassuring the stock market and keeping people’s 401Ks looking a little better. I really do think the focus needs to be on real people and the people who have lost jobs and income. That’s really where the resources from the federal government need to be directed.