Income disparity & homelessness in California

Continuing the discussion from Monica Lewinsky on what it’s like to be slut-shamed by the entire world:

There are several contributing factors to this phenomenon, but one is the stable climate. In San Francisco, spending the night in a public park is much the same experience in December that it is in July. It’s possible to survive a long time without shelter, willingly or otherwise.

In New York City or St. Paul or Colorado Springs, spending the night in a public park in December means you’ll make a nicely preserved corpse.


Some people come to California thinking it won’t get cold, others end up here for various reasons, but we have people die on the streets every winter.

Unfortunately, our large number of mentally ill people on the streets contributes to that death toll. They make up a population that is, in part, physically incapable of caring for themselves.

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Certainly—“possible” isn’t the same as “easy,” much less “guaranteed.”

Even so, seven hypothermia deaths a year is probably a heck of a lot fewer than the body count you’d find in colder climates.

I’m not saying the numbers are the same. I’m saying that we have a large homeless population partially because people believe (falsely) that the weather here will never kill them. Even in Huntington Beach (where they hold summer surfing contests) in December and January you may get 40 degree nights.

That newspaper article was about seven people dying in just the Bay Area from just that one bad cold snap. It wasn’t the whole state or even the whole year.

It isn’t just Northern California either. Winter also kills more homeless in Southern California than any other season. Unfortunately, we don’t have good numbers for how many homeless die each year from hypothermia. In Los Angeles, 24% of death certificates for homeless mark “cardiovascular” as cause of death. That’s followed by “unknown” (greater than 22%). Some of those “unknown” deaths may be due to hypothermia.

Most of the people who die of hypothermia in colder climates are the elderly who venture outdoors when they shouldn’t or can’t afford heating fuel for their homes. The rates for deaths at 80-90 and >90 years old are heavily escalated above younger populations in this country.

The number of recorded hypothermia deaths per year is about 1,300 people per year.

Maybe so, but “the weather here can kill you” still beats “the weather here is all but guaranteed to kill you.” If I was homeless I’d rather risk an unseasonably chilly night at Venice Beach than a blizzard in New England.

The weather here will kill you, too. The beach is exactly where you don’t want to be in 50 degree weather or colder at night. Wet and windy weather exacerbate the effects of the temperature. It doesn’t have to get as cold to make hypothermia set in.

Through the winter, Venice has temps normally ranging down to 50, and sometimes dipping as low as 40. (See “How often Venice Has Cool Temperatures”) This is incredibly unsafe for anyone sleeping without protection on the beach - especially if they’re malnourished or drunk (teens get picked up all the time).

I think we can agree on these things:

  • Weather is a major risk factor for homeless people in California.
  • Weather is an even bigger risk factor for homeless people across much of the rest of the country, particularly the midwest and northeast.

Nope. I don’t think we can. Here’s why:

Weather here is just as deadly, but here people falsely believe that it isn’t, so they’re more likely to get caught out in it. In places where the hazard is obvious, homeless people are more likely to take the required precautions - or simply not live there. They flock here, and that means more beds are available in the places where blizzards hit. It’s actually safer for them to be there.

I already provided data that shows most of the people dying in the midwest are the elderly, 80 and above. They have homes. They either venture out into the cold or have no money for heating fuel.

I’ve also previously provided data that shows how much of the U.S. homeless population lives in California. In 2013, we housed 22% of the nation’s homeless, but in Los Angeles City & Counties, 53,798 people or 76.0% of our homeless were “chronically unsheltered” (exhibit 1.9). That number far exceeds other places in the nation. Louisville, KY had 1,445 people living exposed on the street, and that was 4.4% of their total homeless population.

If you read the source data for HUD (available here as an Excel spreadsheet - “Estimates by State”), you’ll find that of the 610,042 homeless recorded for 2013, 136,826 lived in California. Of those, 45,554 were sheltered. 91,272 lived unsheltered. The total unsheltered for the entire country in 2013 was 215,344, so California had 42.4% of the unsheltered homeless living in the U.S. in 2013. With more homeless, we don’t have enough beds, so people are forced into the cold - that’s a real risk.

We just honestly have that many more people exposed to what is deadly weather. Where weather is a more obvious concern, people either provide more shelter for homeless or the homeless seek other climates.

Exactly as Darwin described, the species that is clever enough to find the right climate gets to reproduce its kind. Okay, that analogy isn’t actually very strong. But still.

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