National News

The Homeless Millennial Connection in California

Posted November 2, 2018 1:16 p.m. EDT

Voters in San Francisco next week will decide whether to aggressively ramp up funding to combat homelessness. A tax on large businesses known as Proposition C would raise up to $300 million annually.

It’s similar to the $1.2 billion bond that Los Angeles voters approved two years ago to build thousands of homes for the chronically homeless.

Will these measures work? Much depends on how quickly and how well they are carried out, and what happens to the economy.

Dennis Culhane, an expert on homelessness at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is also a much more unappreciated factor: demographics.

The current acute homelessness crisis in cities across California corresponds with the coming-of-age of the millennial generation, which at its peak in the mid-1990s had more births than at any time since the baby boomers of the 1950s and ‘60s.

A previous bout of severe homelessness came in the 1980s, when the second half of the baby boomers were in their 20s.

These large groups of young people can push up rents as they search for apartments, aggravating the housing shortage.

“We certainly see that homelessness in this population is bigger relative to the generation before them,” Culhane said.

And by dint of their numbers, millennials may be also straining the mental health system.

“There is anecdotal evidence from cities I’ve been to where people are saying that this young adult population with severe mental illness is overwhelming the health system,” Culhane said. “It doesn’t take many people to have a big impact.”

What does demography say about the future of homelessness in California?

Nationally, births declined for seven years from the millennial generation peak of 4.2 million. There may be some hope in that. Yet the millennial cohort will be with us for decades longer — and Culhane believes it will take a “massive infusion of resources” to assist the neediest among them.

“At the scale of homelessness we are witnessing on the West Coast, little pilot efforts here and there are not going to make a dent,” he said.