Why Do People Become Homeless?

ImageAn encampment of tents line the park at Echo park lake in Los Angeles.
Credit…Bethany Mollenkof for The New York Times

Good morning.

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Here’s the latest dispatch from Marie Tae McDermott, who is helping us answer readers’ questions about inequality in California:

Swati Verma, a reader in Cleveland, asked us, “Were the homeless always homeless? If not, what brought them to the state of homelessness?”

To get a sense of some of the reasons people fall into homelessness, we asked people who have experienced it.

In the dozens of responses we received, readers talked about injury, job loss, domestic violence, mental illness and addiction.

According to San Francisco’s 2019 homeless survey, 26 percent of respondents cited job loss as the primary cause of homelessness, followed by drugs and alcohol (18 percent), eviction (13 percent) and mental illness (8 percent).

It’s clear that there is no one path to living on the streets. However, African-Americans are disproportionately affected as a result of institutional racism. Also, last year many unsheltered adults, over half in LA County and 31 percent in San Francisco, said they were homeless for the first time in their lives. As one reader put it: “We were both professional people and it happened to us.”

Below is a selection of readers’ stories in their own words. These readers were all homeless for a period of time but eventually obtained housing.

[Read about what formerly homeless people said helped them.]

Credit…Karla Garcia

Karla lived in her van with her family throughout high school. She later received a full scholarship to attend U.C. Berkeley.

My father was a carpenter and my mother was an aide at a school library. During the Great Recession, my father was unable to find work and my mother’s hours were cut. They could no longer afford their mortgage. We had to sell most of our things to keep the power on for as long as possible. We lost power, heat and water, and in the end, we were all sleeping in one mattress in an empty home we knew any minute would be repossessed. One afternoon, we came home to discover we were locked out of the house, and that’s when we started living in our van. We went from having a normal life and stable housing, to being homeless. We didn’t always have food, and sometimes my mother would have to choose between gas and food. My parents would take us to the park or to the beach to play all day. In a way, it was a time when I saw my parents and enjoyed them the most.

— Karla Garcia, 25, San Diego

Credit…Conor Kelly

Conor grew up in Palo Alto and as a result of substance addiction, he resorted to living on the streets for a year and a half.

I was so caught up in my addictions that a big part of me didn’t want help. After first going to college, my partying got completely out of hand. I eventually was introduced to “harder” substances and became hopelessly addicted. I failed out and went through a series of rehabs to no avail. Eventually my degenerating behavior shut me off from friends and family, and after getting kicked off the last couch, I went to the streets.

— Conor Kelly, 28, Santa Cruz

Credit…John Brady

John spent a year living on the streets because of depression and a lack of alternatives.

I have a master’s degree in business and marketing. About a decade ago, I was the victim of a hate crime and did not get the treatment I needed. Instead, I self-medicated which led to some poor decisions, the loss of my business and ultimately homelessness. I spent just shy of a year on the streets of San Diego. I used to look at homelessness as a result of personal decisions. Now I see things much more clearly.

The experience of being homeless is the most devastating of my life. I was suffering from major depressive disorder, anxiety and PTSD before I was on the street and those disorders only became worse while homeless. The one thing that kept me alive was the leadership of the Voices of Our City Choir and their belief in me.

— John Brady, 54, San Diego

Credit…Ethan Ward

Ethan used his college campus’s facilities while living out of his car.

I was enrolled full time at Los Angeles City College and living solely off financial aid because my priority was finishing school as quickly as possible. Rent increased at my building and I had to choose between spending all my aid money on rent and not having money for anything else, or living in my car. I chose to live in my car for a year instead.

I quickly realized how easy it is for someone to lose housing and how that can eventually lead to losing hope. It was a daily chore to remind myself that homelessness was a temporary situation.

— Ethan Ward, 37, Los Angeles

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  • A Washington State resident is infected with the Wuhan coronavirus, the mysterious infection that has killed at least six people in Asia, U.S. officials said. They also announced expanded screening for the infection at major airports, including in L.A. and San Francisco. [The New York Times]

  • The Los Angeles police union has contributed $1 million to try to defeat George Gascón, the former San Francisco district attorney now challenging the incumbent Jackie Lacey in L.A. [The Appeal]

  • In a rare interaction, a mountain lion attacked a 3-year-old boy at a park in Lake Forest, prompting an evacuation of the park and authorities to kill the lion. The boy’s father said he threw a backpack at the animal to get it to let go. [The Orange County Register]

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  • Uber is testing a feature in California that would allow some drivers to set their own fares. It’s part of an effort to show drivers have autonomy in response to the state’s new gig labor law. [The Wall Street Journal]

  • The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution urging Major League Baseball to strip the Astros and the Red Sox of their World Series titles and award them to … the Dodgers. [ESPN]

So the 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl. They’ll be facing the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 2 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Of course — much the way the biggest narratives surrounding the Academy Awards have very little to do with the craft of filmmaking — the most interesting things about the game have little to do with the football.

For example, I’ll be keeping an eye on the sidelines for the 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers who is, as NBC News reported, the first female and openly gay coach to go to the Super Bowl.

And as my colleague Ken Belson reported, now that the Niners are good, they’re going hard after abandoned Raiders fans.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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