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Homelessness is compounded by more people losing housing because its unaffordable

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Homelessness in this country keeps going up. Los Angeles and New York City declared a record number of people without housing this past week, part of a steady rise since 2017. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is here to help us understand what's going on. Good morning, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: So cities have put a lot of money and effort into reducing homelessness. LA Mayor Karen Bass even ran on this issue. Why is this problem seems - why does it seem so intractable?

LUDDEN: Well, you know, for sure we do see cities really struggling with homeless encampments. This is hard. But experts tell me it's not like programs to move people into housing don't work. Los Angeles helps thousands find housing every year. The problem, they say, is that even more people keep losing housing because it is increasingly unaffordable. So nationwide, the places with the most homelessness are those where you have poverty and high housing costs.

SCHMITZ: So tell us more about the people who are losing their housing. How do they describe what's happening to them?

LUDDEN: So there's a landmark study just out that surveyed thousands of people without homes in California, and researchers interviewed hundreds of them. Margot Kushel at the University of California, San Francisco, says many describe this slow slide as they struggled to keep paying rent. They may have lost income, had their hours cut at work. Or some lost a job because of a health crisis, or the rent just went up. Kushel says a lot of people crowded in with relatives or friends.

MARGOT KUSHEL: And we found that those relationships, when they fell apart, fell apart quickly. People only had one day's warning. You know, when you're the 10th person in a one-bedroom apartment, not that surprising that there would be conflict there. Or sometimes people just felt like they could no longer impose.

LUDDEN: And to put numbers on the financial disconnect here - for the people who became homeless in that survey, their median monthly household income was $960. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in California is 1,700.

SCHMITZ: That is a huge disconnect. I mean, you've reported on how the U.S. needs more affordable housing. And cities are spending more to build this. What's not working?

LUDDEN: You know, even with more building, the housing shortage is in the millions. Steve Berg with the National Alliance to End Homelessness also says zoning laws, some of which date back to segregation, by the way, make it really hard to build apartments in residential neighborhoods.

STEVE BERG: You hear of places that - where they're trying to build new, affordable apartment buildings. And the powers that be in the city don't want to have it. You know, neighbors will say, we don't want low-income people living here. And they'll stop the housing from being built.

LUDDEN: Berg also says housing that's billed as affordable and does get built, it's not always cheap enough for the lowest-income families, and he says more of it needs to be.

SCHMITZ: Well, to wrap this up, I mean, building new housing also takes a lot of time. What can be done to prevent people from losing housing in the first place?

LUDDEN: You know, at the top of that list would be expanding federal housing subsidies. Right now, only 1 in 4 people who qualify actually get them, and they're really hard to use. In fact, many landlords refuse to accept housing vouchers, so there could be more programs to help people find places that do. Also, Margot Kushel of UCSF would like to see more ways to catch people at risk of becoming homeless. You know, you could target health care clinics or social service agencies. In her survey, she was just shocked by how many people did not reach out anywhere for help as things were falling apart.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.