In geometry one can prove an assertion “by contradiction,” or by showing that a result different from the one you are trying to prove is true would be absurd. The existence or absence of urban prosperity, of course, is not something one can prove or disprove, as if one were proving the congruence of a pair of triangles. At the same time, however, it makes sense to be alert to evidence that contradicts the existence of prosperity. Following from this, in turn, there may be few clearer expressions of prosperity’s absence than the regular sighting of unsheltered homeless people.
I get a particular sense of disquiet from the man I periodically see in the early morning hours near the river at the edge of my neighborhood. Like me he’s a tall, slim white guy, though about 15 years older than I am if I had to guess. He’s always dressed in long pants and a long sleeved shirt or overcoat, and walks around in the half light carrying a battered satchel in one hand. The first time I saw him I couldn’t help but imagine that I was seeing the ghost of a local homeowner who set out to his office job one morning but somehow never made it. I knew right away and still know, of course, that this spectral figure is very much a flesh and blood man – a man who has been living in hiding at the margins of my neighborhood, at least off and on, for several years.
Equally real are the other unsheltered homeless people I see almost every day just in my little corner of Sacramento. There was the African American gentleman of around my age I saw walking near Starbucks the other day, bundled, alarmingly, in several layers of clothes despite the triple digit heat. There was the more sensibly clothed young man I saw bedding down on an open, grassy swale with his bike perhaps ten feet off the roadway near the busy Fair Oaks bridge, no book to read, no companion, no dog to play with, just nothing, laying there. There was – well, the list could go on.
On the other hand, if you look at the numbers, the list is hardly endless. According to a July 2013 report by Focus Strategies for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, there were 786 unsheltered homeless persons in Sacramento County at the time of the “point in time count” on January 24, 2013. This was out of a total homeless population, both sheltered and unsheltered, of 2,538 individuals. Among the 784 unsheltered homeless individuals all except nine were in households without minor children. A large majority were men – with 69.8 percent reporting as male, 17.2 percent as female, 0 percent as transgender, and 12.9 as unknown. A majority of homeless persons – 57.2 percent –reported as white. The next largest racial categories were black/African American, at 18.1 percent, and multiple races at 11.6 percent. Roughly 11 percent of unsheltered homeless individuals were of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.
I recommend the entire Focus Strategies report, which is available on the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency website. Perhaps the most suggestive finding in the report, however, can be found in a graphic that compares a substantial increase in permanent supportive housing units to a substantial decrease in the number of chronically homeless individuals.
The report stops short of drawing a statistical correlation between the construction of housing units and a reduction in the number of homeless people. But it makes logical sense that the most effective way to change the life of a someone who lacks a home might be the most obvious one, in other words, to get them into one. This idea lies at the basis of the “housing first” approach to homeless policy, something I plan to consider in a future post.
 Sacramento Homeless Count 2013. By Focus Strategies, for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. July, 2013.