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Homelessness is already a crisis—but climate change makes it much worse

It’s time to stop treating the housing crisis and the climate crisis as two separate issues—and start designing solutions for both at once.

Homelessness is already a crisis—but climate change makes it much worse
People made homeless by the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County live in a tent city growing around the Walmart parking lot Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Chico, California. [Photo: Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News/Getty Images]

When the Camp Fire devastated the California town of Paradise last fall, around 50,000 people were forced from their community. Very few—just around 10%—have been able to return to the town, where 15,000 homes were destroyed. Many of the rest are still struggling to find housing, a steep task in California where the costs of renting or owning a home are among the highest in the country.

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The tragedy of the Camp Fire illustrates the way two dual crises in the U.S.—economic inequality and climate change—interact. Nearly 44% of the U.S. population, about 140 million people, are living in poverty. At the same time, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a national shortage of around 7 million affordable and available rental homes for low-income renters. The shortage exacerbates existing economic stress and homelessness. And as extreme weather events like the Camp Fire and Hurricane Maria, which destroyed nearly 200,000 homes in Texas, become both more frequent and more intense, they threaten to worsen inequality and housing instability.

The Center for American Progress, a progressive research and advocacy organization, calls extreme weather an “affordable housing crisis multiplier.” In a new report, four researchers from CAP describe how responses to disasters like wildfires and floods have so far failed to consider how the dual crises of extreme weather and the scant supply of affordable homes are impacting already vulnerable people in the U.S. These more vulnerable, frontline communities, which are primarily composed of people of color or those living on low incomes, are the most at risk in extreme weather events because they are more likely to lack the resources to relocate before a disaster, or rebuild in the wake of one. The CAP report makes the case that decades of disinvestment in affordable housing will compound in disaster for low-income communities affected by climate change—so the country should now be addressing both crises together.

“We know there’s a lot of siloing that happens,” says Heidi Schultheis, a senior analyst on the Poverty to Prosperity program at CAP. “On the housing side, there’s a lot of thinking about affordable housing and homelessness as separate issues, but the severe shortage of affordable housing is exacerbating the homelessness crisis.” And in the climate sphere, adds Guillermo Ortiz, research assistant for CAP’s Energy and Environment program, “there’s a very obvious focus on looking at some of the major climate reports like the IPCC’s call to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but what’s often left out is how climate change is impacting people’s lives on a day-to-day basis.”

The CAP research finds that homelessness and housing unaffordability are already overlapping with climate disasters in disturbing ways. The states where more than half of the homeless population in the U.S. resides—California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington—are home to some of the highest housing costs in the country. They’re also among the six most extreme-weather-prone states. When a disaster strikes there, it’s not only a tragedy on a personal level for the people affected, but a crisis of systemic proportions, as it wipes out a portion of already-stretched housing stock for people in need.

While this interplay might be most obvious in states like California, it’s happening everywhere, Ortiz says. “In the Midwest recently with the polar vortex, when temperatures dropped drastically below zero, we saw news reports of good Samaritans buying out hotel rooms for the homeless so they could have some shelter from these life-threatening storms,” he says. “While we commend them for their good deeds, it’s such a significant example of failure of the federal, state, and local efforts to address the needs of this population.”

The CAP report calls for every level of government to get out ahead of extreme weather disasters by ensuring that everyone—but especially economically vulnerable people—has access to a stable living situation and resources to protect themselves. By dramatically expanding funding for affordable housing and homeless assistance programs, all levels of government can help stabilize people’s housing situations. As new housing is built and new communities are developed, the CAP team says it’s imperative for them to be accessible to a range of incomes. And in building out new construction or improvements to existing communities, agencies must work to update designs for maximum resilience in the face of extreme weather—even if it means spending more funds to do so.

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Beyond stabilizing housing and infrastructure, the CAP researchers say that government agencies like FEMA and HUD need to work better to align their evacuation and post-disaster assistance programming with more vulnerable people. According to CAP research, FEMA disproportionately directs disaster response funding to wealthier, white homeowners. Several states—most prominently Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina—have been sued over this disparity in aid distribution, which the CAP researchers say needs to be addressed.

The point of the report, Ortiz says, is to “bridge the two worlds of the climate crisis and housing crisis” so officials working on each can begin to see how their work overlaps, and why they must collaborate on solutions. Policymakers, Schultheis adds, need to understand where issues like homelessness and housing unaffordability are concentrated, and ensure that those people and communities are supported both before a disaster like a hurricane or wildfire could strike, and in the aftermath. Many of the strategies that CAP calls for lean on the fiscal and ideological cooperation of Congress and federal agencies, which have been slow to advance progressive solutions on inequity and climate change, but the model of linking extreme weather impacts with the housing and homelessness crisis is one that state and local governments can begin to adopt immediately.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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