Why is Homelessness Such a Problem on the West Coast?

west coast homelessness

When we see photos of homeless people or tent cities, they’re usually set against one of a few familiar backdrops: palm trees, sun-scorched pavement, or gray Pacific Northwest skies. There are over 180,000 homeless people living on the streets of California, Oregon, and Washington cities. Of the 10 cities with the highest rates of homelessness, all but two are on the West Coast.

Why are there so many homeless people in West Coast cities? This question is often talked about, but seldom agreed upon. Among the many reasons given, some gain traction that aren’t actually true. These are often based on guesses or assumptions. In the worst cases, false information about homeless people is used for personal or political gain.

Take, for example, California governor Gavin Newsom. He was mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011. When asked why there were so many homeless people in the city during his time as mayor, he claimed the “vast majority” of its homeless residents were actually from Texas. He gave no proof of this or explanation why so many homeless Texans would move to San Francisco.

When we don’t agree on why some areas have more homelessness than others, we can’t fix it. We cannot solve problems if we don’t know why they’re happening. Also, finger pointing about whose fault homelessness is—which side of the political aisle is to blame—distracts from the problem and does nothing to solve it.

Myths about why homelessness occurs most on the west coast can be hard to stop. Below are a few of the most widely-held myths, followed by the truth behind why those on the West Coast struggle too frequently with homelessness.

Myth #1: Homeless People Move to the West Coast Because the Weather is Warmer.

On the surface, this idea seems to make sense. California, Oregon, and Washington are warmer, more temperate climates, and facilitate living outdoors better than other places—the Midwest, for example.

However, no climate is suited for living unsheltered. They all come with grave risks. The summer heat of Los Angeles can easily lead to heat stroke. The heat in Phoenix, Arizona—ninth on the list for highest rates of homelessness—can kill quickly. There are many moderate and warm climates around the U.S., such as the South and Southeast, which don’t struggle with nearly the same amount of homelessness.

This myth can also be easily defeated when you consider no one plans to stay homeless long-term. It’s insulting to people who are homeless to suggest they would move cross-country to better facilitate living outdoors. For homeless people, each day on the street is one too many.

Myth #2: There Are More Social Programs in West Coast Cities Because They’re More ‘Liberal.’

This may be the most pervasive myth about homelessness on the West Coast. However—and this truth is relevant to the first myth as well—people rarely move once they become homeless. When they do, it’s almost never to seek out social programs.

Programs like emergency shelters, mental health and substance abuse treatment, rental assistance, and many more exist in every major city. Some West Coast cities may be more “liberal” in terms of having more Democrat-led governments. However, this doesn’t make them free of greedy property developers.

If governments were to truly prioritize their lower-income residents, they would build more affordable housing, not create more programs which treat the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause.

Myth #3: Mental Illness and Addiction Are Rampant on the West Coast.

This myth stems from the belief that substance abuse and mental health problems are a primary reason for homelessness. However, these problems are more often a result of homelessness rather than a cause of it.

The myth is particularly harmful because it’s used to attack and blame homeless people for being homeless. Saying people become homeless when they fall into mental illness or addiction takes the blame off policymakers and politicians. Making these claims shifts attention and blame away from these public figures, who choose to value their wealthiest citizens and own levels of approval above caring for their poor.

This myth might not be quite so dangerous if those who support it actually took action on matters of mental health and addiction. Unfortunately, no new mental health or substance abuse program funding comes about as a result of these impassioned arguments. It’s just an excuse: if only people took better care of their mental health, or stayed away from drugs and alcohol, they’d be housed just like the rest of us.

So, What’s the Truth?

Before we look at why there’s so much homelessness on the West Coast, we need to establish one thing. Homeless people rarely move after they become homeless. Politicians, like Governor Newsom, tend to claim otherwise when their public image is at stake, or they want to vilify the other political party.

A homeless count in 2019 found that 64% of Los Angeles County’s homeless population had been living in Los Angeles for at least ten years. Less than a fifth reported having lived outside California before becoming homeless. Forty-three percent of San Francisco’s homeless population reported having lived in the city for the past 10 years.

There’s more homelessness on the West Coast because there’s more of what causes homelessness: high housing costs and poverty. According to the Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing 2020, to afford a two-bedroom apartment in California you need to make $36.98 per hour. It holds the second-highest “housing wage” in the country, under Hawaii. Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and Nevada also hold some of the highest housing wages in the U.S.

Coastal cities tend to be the most gentrified in the U.S.

California has five of the top 20 most-gentrified cities in the U.S. Gentrification is the process of a city pouring renovation and resources into certain areas to make them more appealing to the middle- and upper-class. Poor residents, and their areas of town, get neglected or even pushed out of their housing.

In Seattle—a West Coast city struggling with the third-highest rate of homelessness in the country—government funding has gone to building homes geared to the wealthiest tech workers rather than the families making lower, or even average, incomes. There simply is not enough supply to keep up with demand.

Now that you know the facts about why homelessness is so often heard about and witnessed on the West Coast, you have the responsibility to call out false information you see and hear. False information catches and spreads like wildfire. By being vocal and confident in the way you educate others, you have the ability to change public discourse around homelessness.

Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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