A symbol of prosperity and all that is possible, California grapples with a growing problem of housing and inequality.
The spectacle is as gripping as it is heartbreaking. Extreme poverty and misery are not the exception here, but the rule. In the streets, the vast majority of men and women are dressed in threadbare and filthy clothes. Some go to a food distribution counter, line up in front of the premises of an aid organization, tidy up their makeshift shelters planted in the middle of the sidewalk or look for drugs that are sold. at every street corner. Most just stand there, exchange a few words with each other, or do nothing, gazing lost. The poorest ones curse passers-by or invisible demons, lower their pants to their knees to inject a dose into a buttock or are sprawled on the ground, unconscious.
This scene on Golden Gate Avenue is repeated on Turk, Ellis, Hyde, Larkin and so many other streets of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, right next to its majestic city hall, the convention center, fancy hotels and a Jaguar dealership.
It’s hard to believe that we are in California, the richest state in the United States with a gross domestic product (over US $ 3,100 billion in 2019) which would rank it fifth among the largest economies in the world, behind Germany and ahead of India. What’s more, in the city that perhaps best symbolizes the dynamism and prosperity of the Golden State, with its unique style and beauty, its Silicon Valley tech champions and its concentration of billionaires (1 in 80,000 inhabitants) without equal, even in New York, Dubai or Hong Kong.
“The homelessness crisis is only the most visible face of declining living standards, exploding inequalities and shrinking social safety nets,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition On Homelessness, a local organization help. The situation is now worse than ever, both in the proportion of people affected and the depth of human misery. “
The tip of the iceberg
Flourishing California has a quarter of all homeless people in the United States, more than double the weight of its 40 million people in the general American population. At the last official count, the city of San Francisco had more than 8,000 homeless last year and its region as a whole 35,000, up 24% since 2017. Other estimates, considered more complete, arrive at more double.
The problem is all the more visible there as almost nine out of ten homeless people have no shelter or other emergency solution, even temporary, against only 5% in New York, and even if the average minimum temperatures drop there. as low as 8 degrees in the rainy winter months.
They can be found directly on the sidewalks in small tents, shelters made from odds and ends or rolled up in a blanket, not only in the terrible district of Tenderloin, but also in all kinds of interstices in the city, including those of the most beautiful neighborhoods. In Oakland, just across the Bay from San Francisco, vacant lots have taken on the appearance of small slums that could sometimes be mistaken for those in poor countries. In Berkeley or in Silicon Valley, they sleep in their cars or in dilapidated motorhomes permanently parked, especially in the streets bordering the gleaming and futuristic “campuses” of Google and Apple.
Black and Latino men are over-represented there, a survey reported last month. One-third suffers from drug addiction and more than half report having had mental health problems in recent years. Contrary to a stubborn myth, more than two-thirds do not arrive elsewhere, but were living in San Francisco when they lost their homes, and the vast majority would ask for nothing better than to have some help. go out, if only she was available.
The price of a roof
The main issue that keeps coming up in all conversations in the region is the cost of housing. Nowhere in the United States is it higher than in San Francisco, with a median price of 1.4 million last year, compared to an average of $ 557,000 in California and $ 244,000 in the across the country, the Joint Venture Silicon Valley research center reported earlier this year.
It is true that wages are also generally higher in the region, with a median family income of $ 112,000 per year in San Francisco, compared to an average of $ 75,000 in California and $ 62,000 in the United States. United. But even these salaries are less and less sufficient, especially since, unlike the price of houses, the real income of families continues to decline over the years, except for that of the richest, especially those of Silicon. Valley.
This already made San Francisco, in 2018, the most unequal region of one of the most unequal states in the country, the Public Policy Institute of California noted earlier this year. It also means that entire sections of the population are forced to spend a disproportionate share of their income on housing and that tenants often only keep their apartments because they have not moved for years and rules prevent , under these circumstances, landlords increase their rents as much as they would like.
The situation is not about to change anytime soon, warns Joint Venture Silicon Valley President and CEO Russell Hancock. In recent years, five times fewer new homes have been built in the San Francisco area than they have created jobs.
This is due, he says, among other things to the prohibitive cost of land and labor, but also to the plethora of urban planning, architectural and environmental rules, as well as to a certain activism of citizens who have many recourse. to block any new project in their neighborhood. “Sooner or later, local governments will have to stand up to these voters. “
The November 3 ballot will give Californian voters an opportunity to vote on a proposal to increase property taxes for businesses in order to devote more financial resources to social housing.
After two years of legal battles, another proposal, from the City of San Francisco this time, finally got the green light from the courts last month to allocate an additional $ 300 million to building affordable housing, housing services. help with addiction and mental illness, as well as financial and legal assistance to tenants.
“We’re approaching a terrible wall,” warns Jennifer Friedenbach. The economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the end of several emergency aid programs have placed many people in an impossible financial situation. Fortunately, the ban on tenant evictions has been extended until early next year, but after that it’s going to be terrible. “
In the meantime, local authorities have closed shelters to reduce the spread of the virus, but are renting hotel rooms for the elderly and sick in return. In Tenderloin, supervised tent camps have been set up, including one in the shade of the golden dome of Town Hall. Water points, chemical toilets and meal distributions have been provided in the streets. One-way bus tickets are also available for those who have a place to stay in another city… or another state.
This report was funded with support from the Transat-Le Devoir International Journalism Fund.