California Leads the Nation in Creating Down-and-Out People

Close-up of elderly hands holding an empty wallet.

California produces more poor and homeless people than any other state. How can a place with such astounding wealth have so many destitute and displaced people?

Is California more mentally ill than Texas? Is California more drug addicted than West Virginia? Or do the living conditions here drive people over the edge? How did the California dream become a humanitarian nightmare?

Over the years, so many theories have been debunked. The documentation is clear that the homeless population of California is largely made up of Californians. Your neighborhood homeless person was once your housed neighbor.

How can California, home to Hollywood and Big Tech, be the poorest state? Poverty is mostly defined by your ability to stay housed, fed, and have access to other necessities. If you earn the minimum wage of $15.50 in California, your monthly take-home pay of $2,687 is less than the average rent of $2,742. If you share a place with another minimum wage worker, you are paying more than 50% of your combined income in rent. If you are on disability or Social Security, your circumstance is probably much worse.

The brutal choice of becoming homeless versus not having enough to eat is enough to cause a mental health crisis. And if you fall homeless, that experience is sure to harm you psychologically. Making shelter a survival of the fittest Hunger Game is barbaric.

Housing is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Leaving housing exclusively to the whims of the open market ensures that more people will be rent-burdened. Housing is more a public utility than a commodity.

We are being sold solutions to the housing affordability crisis that do not get to the root of the problem: the rent is too damn high. Building mostly market-rate housing has no impact on a person getting $1,396 on disability. Throwing billions at homelessness without giving people permanent housing will not improve the situation.

The root of the housing crisis is corruption. Big Real Estate owns our state government from the governor on down. In fact, read Housing Is A Human Right’s special investigation that found how corporate landlords and the California Apartment Association shell out campaign cash to local and state politicians in 51 out of 58 counties in California.

So whatever the California Apartment Association — which spends millions greasing the palms of our politicians — wants, it gets. Don’t believe me? The governor’s campaign and CAA share a spokesman.

The CAA spends hundreds of millions demonizing rent control — an American tradition since 1919. But there is no reason why rents should not be regulated when almost everything else is. The consequences will continue to be a mass migration out of California, resulting in a lower tax base, 171,000 of us having to live on the streets, and millions more in imminent danger of ending up there.

California is far from the land of milk and honey when this many people are just one illness or recession removed from destitution.

Michael Weinstein, the author of this op-ed, is the president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. AHF is the parent organization of Housing Is A Human Right.