The core theme of THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE CONTAGION: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order [CONTAGION][1] is that effective strategies demand a clear understanding of the interacting elements that taken together must be dealt with to mitigate the worst of the effects that we are producing through AI/robotics.  These include job loss, the “decoupling” of human labor and economic productivity, income insufficiency, age demographics, and the inability to meet the expensive promises governments and corporations have made to millions of people who have been counting on those resources. 

Homelessness cannot be separated from causative factors such as the elimination of jobs, the stress and uncertainty of a rapidly changing economy relative to future opportunities, drug addiction, serious health problems, aging, bankruptcy and foreclosure, and the rising costs of living that Americans are experiencing even to the point that many young adults are living with their parents.  CONTAGION details the significant impacts of AI/robotics on employment that have already been created and goes on to indicate the massive job destruction that numerous experts are predicting over the next five to fifteen years and beyond, with some estimates ranging up to fifty percent of current jobs by 2030.  The point is that we are already experiencing the “contagion” and rising homelessness is among the devastating consequences.

Growing homelessness in California, New York, the Pacific Northwest, Denver, many other urban areas and even rural settings.[2] In “America’s homeless population rises for the first time since the Great Recession”, Alastair Gee cites a government study finding 553,742 people were homeless, and that anti-homelessness “advocates lament a crisis that shows no sign of abating”.[3]  A 2017 report indicated that New York had 20,000 more homeless people than even Los Angeles.[4]  Although LA officials have spent huge sums on attempting to rectify homelessness, $619 million in 2018, the area’s homeless population increased by 12 percent.[5]  This is an early indication of what will develop as job loss and addictions increase.[6]  Estimates are that half of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t compensate for even a short-term loss of income.[7]  Many older Americans are dipping into their limited retirement savings to help support their adult children.[8]  Studies indicate an increasing number of Americans are working into their 70’s and many have no plans to retire because they can’t afford to. [9]

We are witnessing a steady increase in the numbers of homeless in the US.  Anaheim declared a “homeless emergency”.[10]  Portland, Oregon is facing a growing problem with an aggressive homeless population about which officials seem to be at a loss in figuring out ways to cope.  In fact, much of the homelessness problem in cases such as Portland, Oregon is actually caused by local command and control approaches to zoning and urban planing that sumultaneously limit new development, decrease the willingness of police and local officials to enforce the law, increase the cost of living, and lack of the political will to tackle tough problems.[11] A recent report argued that “Seattle is Dying” and that $400 million annually is needed to place that city’s homeless in housing and provide other essential support.[12]  The problem with such “solutions” is that there is already a dramatically reduced ability on the part of city, state and federal governments that are already cash-strapped to the point of bankruptcy.[13]  When future financial commitments are taken into account involving public pensions and health care the picture is dire across the board. 

Many have found themselves homeless due to the loss of employment, health conditions and overwhelming psychological stress.  Homelessness has become an epidemic visible mainly on the streets, parks and alleys of our cities.  We are in the early phases of the homelessness crisis and already have a serious problem of an inadequate social safety net, coupled with an unwillingness by politicians to create and enforce anything other than superficial “feel-good” policy approaches to the crisis.  From the perspective of societies that have the stark option of condemning a significant part of their populace to living “on the street” as jobs disappear, democracy simply cannot cope with the stresses.  Added to this homelessness crisis is pension insecurity and the prospect that our most vulnerable members of society will end up betrayed, bereft and ignored.  The provision of care for the elderly and the growing ranks of the less fortunate is vital if our society is to save its soul.

Rising homelessness is not only occurring in big cities.  Jake Bittle recently wrote in The Nation that rural America is experiencing a significant increase in “hidden homeless” in rural areas, noting that hundreds of thousands, including nearly 162,000 grade-school children, are lost in the cracks of a system of counting and support that often does not even realize their existence.  He also notes that the problem of the hidden homeless is growing at a faster pace than in the cities.[14]

Growing homelessness is an early warning signal.  What we are facing is real, extremely serious, complex and tragic.  As jobs continue to disappear—particularly but not solely at the manual labor and repetitive information management levels—very large numbers of people will find themselves without the means to provide for basic needs.  Some will find support from government programs, parents and extended families but many will find themselves on the streets, living in makeshift shelters, vans, cars, “squatting” in vacant buildings, or huddling under cardboard and newspapers trying to keep warm and dry.

Although sources are provided concerning the nation’s homeless crisis at the end of this analysis and in endnotes, a limited sampling of reports released just over in late-April to early June 2019 demonstrate quite clearly that the situation is getting worse.  Several reports are offered immediately below.

  •  “Study finds homelessness at record highs in NYC”, Luke Funk, 4/30/19.  “A new report gives the city and state an “F” grade for handling the homeless crisis in New York City as the numbers of people in the street continues to reach record numbers.”
  • “Officials at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) are evaluating how to best address the growing issue of homeless people taking shelter in the air hub, the latest challenge stemming from the northern California city’s homelessness crisis.”

Homelessness will be further expanded as an aging population experiences significant increases in health problems.  As discussed in CONTAGION, the US, China, Europe and Japan are all experiencing what Pope Francis called the “Age Curse” with births dropping dramatically and a significant percentage of the population in those nations skewing toward the upper age limits. Older Americans are experiencing serious health challenges that include dementia, Alzheimers and drug addictions.  Such diseases will result in millions of people falling into poverty, bankruptcy and dependency at the same time labor earnings on which many local, state and federal government institutions depend for the tax revenues that fund their assistance programs will decline as economic activity increasingly replaces human labor with AI/robotics systems.[15]

Many public and private pension systems are already significantly underfunded and this will become worse as returns on investment flow much more to capital owners than human workers. The interlocked complexity of US, European and Asian economies means that as they move into a downward spiral within the next decade, as numerous analysts predict as a result of the effects of AI/robotics, public pension funds will be forced to reduce or eliminate promised benefits.  Numerous private pension programs will disappear. 

Counting the Numbers and the Costs

California is facing an epidemic of homelessness that appears to be well beyond its ability to cope.  The increase in homelessness is partly due to people suffering from addictions to drugs or alcohol.   Others have serious physical or emotional health problems.  A recent report indicates that the Los Angeles area has at least 59,000 homeless.  The number is increasing year by year.  LA has voted to create a $1.2 billion program to build housing for its homeless population and a recent proposal advocated guaranteeing decent housing for all of LA’s homeless.  A proposal has been offered suggesting that Los Angeles homeowners could be subsidized for converting parts of their homes or garages into living quarters for homeless people.

Even though LA’s homelessness reduction efforts allegedly helped 21,000 people find ongoing shelter in the past year, the people working to reduce homelessness were stunned and “heartbroken” to find out that the homeless population continued to grow and is now estimated to be 59,000.[16] LA’s ability to provide even basic health, sanitation, and other humane services to such numbers is grossly inadequate.  The city has recently been condemned for its inability to even collect garbage, leading to an infestation of rats, fleas and disease.  In late May 2019 there was an intense debate over what to do with the homeless encampments surrounding Los Angeles’s City Hall, a situation creating conditions one critic stated would be an embarrassment to a Third World country.[17] 

Speaking of “gross”, a dangerous and growing outbreak of Hepatitis A is directly linked to LA’s homeless residents since many have taken to defecating on streets and sidewalks and lack sanitation.[18]  One “solution” that has been proposed includes expanding the number of restrooms including toilets and showers for the homeless population.  A recent study indicates that while it could help take care of some the problem if the homeless individuals actually used the facilities, it would cost the city $57 million per year to provide, monitor, clean and maintain restrooms for all of LA’s homeless encampments.[19]

Another aspect of the problem, one that is likely to expand dramatically as AI/robotics joblessness takes hold, is the emergence of what has been called the “voluntary” homeless.  This group is made up of people who will never be full contributing members of society but will require and demand assistance.  They will also impose negative impacts on the areas in which they circulate.  This brings Yuval Harari’s warning in Homo Deus about the emergence of a “useless class” to the forefront.  Unfortunately the phenomenon appears to be considerably more than being a matter of merely useless. Destructive behavior too often is the norm, and can be expected to increase.  This results in significant health care and policing costs as well as a sense of social insecurity.  A recent report indicates aspects of the problem.

“From the parks of Berkeley to the streets of Brooklyn, and in most every large city in between, they have become an almost inescapable part of urban life.  Known by many names – “crusty punks,” “crusties,” gutter punks,” “crumb bums” and “dirty kids,” to list but a few – this group of young adults has rejected a more traditional 9-to-5 lifestyle in favor of train hopping, panhandling and voluntary homelessness.  And while traditionally tolerated by police and urban residents, these transient groups of the unshaven and unwashed have been involved in a series of incidents in recent years … that has municipalities across the country puzzling over how to address the problem.” [20]

The problem of the homeless is not limited to urban areas or to the West Coast.  One report indicates an expansion from the cities into California’s rural areas and as Jake Bittle noted above, rural homelessness appears to be increasing more rapidly than in the large cities.[21]  Another analysis indicates the intricate and complex problems contributing to the growth in homelessness.  This includes the aging of that population demographic with a resulting increase in health issues.[22]  As jobs continue to disappear, the ranks of the homeless will swell even more dramatically.

The challenge in finding solutions is that we use an all-encompassing term such as “homelessness” and act as if it represents a single condition, that of not having a relatively decent place to live, rather than the diverse complex of causes and effects that more accurately describe the situation.  The idea is that if a “home” is provided the problem of “Homelessness” is solved.  Behind the general idea of homelessness are such things as economic homelessness, drug and alcohol derived homelessness, mental illness, health issues, rebellion and alternative lifestyle, natural disasters and more.  One critical form exists when homelessness involves entire families and young children. Another is created when children flee their families due to abuse or anger, or are failed by the bureaucratic systems of child welfare and foster care that created to save and nurture them.  Some forms are temporary while others are chronic or permanent. 

The core challenge is that lack of housing and shelter are outcomes and conditions much more than they are causes of homelessness.  The issue is how to deal with the array of underlying factors that end up leaving people in a state of homelessness and despair.  The reality is that we do not seem to have much of a clue in far too many of the contexts that drive the growing challenge of homelessness in America.  In a recent interview Dr. Drew Pinsky described his frustration with governmental efforts to deal with the homeless crisis.

“[T]he government is somehow insisting that housing is the problem when in fact we have chronic mental illness, we have addiction, we have people who don’t want to leave the streets,” Pinsky said. “They literally won’t take the housing if we give it to them. And that’s the population that’s vulnerable, and is going to get so ill this summer. It scares me for their well-being.”  Asked why the liberal politicians aren’t doing more to alleviate these conditions, Pinsky said they are “disgustingly negligent.” “[23]

Recent Reports on Rapidly Growing Homelessness

  • America’s homeless population rises for the first time since the Great Recession:  a new government study finds 553,742 people were homeless on a single night this year, as advocates lament a crisis that shows no sign of abating”, The Guardian, Alastair Gee, 12/5/17.
  • “ ‘America’s new Vietnam’: why a homelessness crisis seems unsolvable: Despite approving billions in funds to fight the problem, Los Angeles has seen its homeless population continue to grow.” The Guardian, Andrew Gumbel, 3/16/18.
  • “L.A. County’s homeless problem is worsening despite billions from tax measures”, Los Angeles Times, Doug Smith, 2/19/18.
  • “Homelessness soars on West Coast as cities struggle to cope”, San Francisco Gate, Gillian Flaccus and Geoff Mulvihill, 11/6/17.
  • “L.A. County wants to help build guest houses in backyards — for homeless people”, Los Angeles Times, Gale Holland, 4/11/18.
  • “LA Considers Ambitious Proposal To Provide Housing For Every Homeless Person”, CBS Local Los Angeles, 3/23/18.
  • “ ‘National disgrace’: Community fights back as California overrun by homelessness, human waste, needles”, Fox News, Tori Richards, 2/26/18.
  • “Deaths among King County’s homeless reach new high amid growing crisis”, Seattle Times, Vernal Coleman, 12/30/17.
  • “Bay Area cities face growing crisis as RVs become homes of last resort”, East Bay Times, Louis Hansen, 12/17/17.
  • “Columbia Sportswear may close Portland office over death threats, public defecation by homeless people”, Fox News, Travis Fedschun, 11/27/17.  
  • “Homeless people defecating on LA streets fuels horror hepatitis outbreak, as city faulted”, Fox News, Tori Richards, 11/22/17.
  • “The Silicon Valley paradox: one in four people are at risk of hunger: study suggests that 26.8% of the population qualify as ‘food insecure’ based on risk factors such as missing meals or relying on food banks”, The Guardian, Charlotte Simmonds, 12/12/17.
  • “California’s homelessness crisis moves to the country: California housing costs are spiraling so high that they are pushing the state’s homelessness crisis into places it’s never been before — sparsely populated rural counties.” San Francisco Chronicle, Kevin Fagan and Alison Graham, 9/8/17.
  • “More Homeless People Live in New York than Any Other City”, WNYC Report, Mirela Iverac, 12/6/17. The number reported by the federal government is 76,000 compared to Los Angeles’ 55,000.

[1] Artificial Intelligence Contagion, Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order?  David Barnhizer and Daniel Barnhizer (2019).

[2] “Colorado singled out in federal report for high number of homeless families with children compared to other states”, Elizabeth Hernandez, Denver Post, 12/17/18.

[3] The Guardian, Alastair Gee, 12/5/17.

[4] “More Homeless People Live in New York than Any Other City”, WNYC Report, Mirela Iverac, 12/6/17. The number reported by the federal government is 76,000 compared to Los Angeles’ 55,000.

[5]  “Homelessness  jumps 12 percent  across Los Angeles County despite  $619M in spending”, Louis Casiano, Fox News, 6/5/19.

[6] “Homelessness soars on West Coast as cities struggle to cope”, Gillian Flaccus and Geoff Mulvihill, 11/6/17.

[7]  “Half of Americans are just one paycheck away from financial disaster”, Jacob Passy, 5/16/19.  “Missing more than one paycheck is a one-way ticket to financial hardship for nearly half of the country’s workforce.”

[8]  “Adult children are costing many parents their retirement savings”, Megan Cerullo, 4/24/19.  “Half of American parents have cut back on their retirement savings to help pay their children’s bills, a study shows.” 

[9], “Retirement? Four in 10 Americans Don’t See It Ever Happening: Almost 40% of Americans lack confidence they will ever save enough money to retire. That number climbs even higher among older Americans, age 54 or more.” Alex Tanzi, 6/6/19. “On average, monthly benefits for a retired worker from the Social Security Administration are $1,468.39 or only about $17,600 per year.”

[10] “Anaheim’s emergency declaration sets stage for removal of homeless encampment”, Anh Do, 9/14/17.

[11] “Our Homeless Crisis”, Anna Griffin, 1/17/2015.

[12]  “Amazon Led a Tax Rebellion. A Year Later, Seattle Is Gridlocked”, Matt Day and Noah Buhayar, Bloomberg, June 10, 2019. [This concentrates on Seattle’s homelessness crisis and argued that Seattle “needed to spend $360 million to $410 million a year to help people experiencing homelessness get a permanent roof over their heads.”]

[13]  “America’s largest cities drowning in debt, with Chicago leading the way, study finds”,  Frank Miles, 5/14/19.  “U.S. Budget Deficit Grew 38% in First Seven Months of Fiscal 2019: Federal revenues increased 2% from October through April despite lower tax rates, Treasury says”.  “50,219,667 Tax Return Filers Paid $0 or Less in Income Taxes”, Terence P. Jeffrey, 4/15/19.

[14]  “The ‘Hidden’ Crisis of Rural Homelessness: Until the federal government tackles rural homelessness as a distinct issue, the problem will only get worse”,  Jake Bittle, 3/28/19.

[15]  “Aging baby boomers are about to push Alzheimer’s disease rates sky high”, Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press, 5/4/19.

[16]“Los Angeles officials say they are ‘stunned’ by ‘heartbreaking’ new homeless numbers”.  Catherine Garcia, 6/4/19.

[17]  “Filth from homeless camps is luring rats to L.A. City Hall, report says”, Dakota Smith and David Zahniser, 6/3/19.

[18] “Homeless people defecating on LA streets fuels horror hepatitis outbreak, as city faulted”, Tori Richards, 11/22/17.  Richards details the challenge.

[19]  “$339,000 for a restroom? L.A. politicians balk at the cost of toilets for homeless people”, Emily Alpert Reyes, 6/10/19. 

[20]  “Voluntarily vagrant, homeless youth a ‘crusty’ urban challenge”, Andrew O’Reilly, 6/11/18.

[21] “California’s homelessness crisis moves to the country”, Kevin Fagan and Alison Graham, 9/8/17.  They report: “California housing costs are spiraling so high that they are pushing the state’s homelessness crisis into places it’s never been before — sparsely populated rural counties.”

[22]  “What policymakers and the general public need to recognize is that the homeless are aging faster than the general population in the U.S. This shift in the demographics has major implications for how municipalities and health care providers deal with homeless populations.”

[23]  “Dr. Drew says LA public health in ‘complete breakdown’: ‘No city on Earth tolerates this’”, Bradford Betz, 5/31/19.

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