A recession following the coronavirus pandemic could cause twice as much homelessness nationwide as the Great Recession did more than a decade ago, says a grim study released Tuesday by Economic Roundtable, an L.A. research group.
Using detailed data on unemployment and homelessness from L.A. County social services, authors of the study project that people at the “thin edge of the labor market” — restaurant employees, temporary workers, seasonal labor — are in particular danger of drifting into homelessness in the coming years as the economy recovers.
Daniel Flaming, the president of Economic Roundtable, said though the report uses L.A. data, the pandemic recession will likely have long-term effects in Seattle and other major cities.
“I would think it would be very harsh, because the tech sector in Seattle supports another sector of people who provide face-to-face services — your restaurants, your bars, your nail salons, your gyms,” Flaming said. “Those sectors have been devastated.”
By 2023, the number of people who’ve lost work and become homeless as a ripple effect of a pandemic-induced recession could tip over 600,000 beyond current numbers, doubling the last nationwide count, which was roughly 568,000 in January 2019.
Most who lose their low-wage jobs don’t become homeless, but those workers are the “seed bed of homelessness,” Flaming said. People in that situation who can’t stay with family, have mental health or substance use issues, come from poor communities or face systemic racism — especially Black or Indigenous people — will have a harder time getting back on their feet.
But other researchers who reviewed the study cautioned that it provides a clear blueprint of what could happen if elected leaders don’t act.
“This report certainly is a warning alarm for the potential impact of doing nothing,” said Dennis Culhane, a renowned homelessness researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
Culhane pointed out that Congress never provided direct relief to everyone in the United States in 2009 or 2010 — the middle of the Great Recession — except for extended unemployment benefits.
“Poverty went down when the CARES Act came out,” Culhane said. “Who would have expected that?”
One key difference: In the 2008 recession, housing costs trended downward, the report points out, and it was years after the economy had recovered that homelessness rose with housing costs.
Basing homelessness predictions on unemployment can be risky: One alarming prediction by a renowned homelessness researcher last July said homelessness could rise nationwide by 45% by the end of 2020, based on unemployment numbers. There’s no evidence that’s come to pass, although the annual homeless count that would normally take place at the end of this month has been disrupted — almost 40 percent of all jurisdictions in the U.S., including Seattle, are canceling or changing their homeless counts, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning data showing how the pandemic has affected homelessness might not be available until 2022.
Gregg Colburn, a University of Washington researcher who has studied King County’s use of hotels to shelter homeless people after the pandemic hit, argued it doesn’t matter if the prediction is completely correct or just in the ballpark.
“If we don’t respond, we’re going to have a lot of homelessness,” Colburn said. “Let’s work hard from a policy standpoint to make sure that that bad outcome doesn’t happen — whatever that bad outcome is.”
Flaming’s report prescribes a focus on employment as a way to head off a wave of chronic homelessness from people who fall into despair when finding a good-paying job takes too long. He argues that homelessness policy in the past hasn’t focused enough on employment programs.
“I certainly agree that housing is a piece of it, it’s just not the only piece,” Flaming said.
But the report is too optimistic about the efficacy of jobs programs, according to Jill Khadduri, a researcher and co-author of “In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and What to Do About It.” She believes President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are more likely to pursue housing assistance for people in poverty, as they both suggested expanding housing vouchers when they were candidates for Democratic nominee for president.
“The structural problems of the U.S. economy is that a lot of work is not only low wage but unpredictable,” Khadduri said. “There’s a much easier and more direct way of keeping the current economic crisis from turning into more homelessness, and that’s to expand the housing voucher program so that more people are prevented from falling into homelessness.”