How the United States Chose to Become a Country of Homelessness

Advocates have been sounding the alarms for months—issuing reports, penning press releases, warning politicians as an increasing number of Americans made jobless by the pandemic have fallen behind on their rent. Now, the warnings unheeded, the United States is facing an unprecedented homelessness crisis, one that is as predictable as it was avoidable.

I first saw signs of this coming catastrophe on May 26, as the markets in New York City roared—the Dow was up 530 points, and the S&P hit an 11-week high. But in San Diego, Rudy and Christina Rico rummaged through a blue recycling barrel set out on the street. The couple, married for 37 years, hoped to scrape together $50 worth of bottles and cans. It meant dinner.

“I never thought I’d go through trash cans for money,” Rudy told me as I walked down the drive of a friend’s house, where I was isolating. “But you got to eat.” A mockingbird in a Queen palm filled the ensuing silence. Rudy was a landscaper until the pandemic hit and he lost his job. He and Christina were now living out of their car. They’d never been homeless before. Christina thought I’d come to admonish them. “Some people get angry,” she said.

The Ricos were among the earliest ripples of a crisis that has been looming since the first days of the coronavirus pandemic. As far back as April, after lockdowns jolted the economy to a halt, news outlets began issuing warnings: “31% Can’t Pay the Rent: ‘It’s Only Going to Get Worse,’” declared one New York Times headline; “Rent Is Due Today, But Millions of Americans Won’t Be Paying,” blared NPR’s website the following month.

By August, a group of experts representing some of the leading housing rights organizations in the country—including the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project—arrived at a dire conclusion. In a white paper titled “The Covid-19 Eviction Crisis,” the consortium estimated that “in the absence of robust and swift intervention, an estimated 30–40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months.” The authors warned that “the United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history,” adding that people of color “constitute approximately 80% of people facing eviction.”

In the ensuing months, tens of thousands of Americans have been evicted; according to the Eviction Lab, landlords have filed more than 162,500 eviction notices in the 27 cities it tracks. But the worst of the crisis has been averted so far by a patchwork of state moratoriums that have been supplemented, in turn, by a patchwork of federal efforts. In March, Congress passed a temporary eviction moratorium as part of the CARES Act; after that expired, in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in with its own temporary moratorium. Most recently, as part of the stimulus package passed in late December, Congress provided $25 billion in rental assistance to states and localities and extended the eviction moratorium to January 31. Renters breathed a sigh of relief.