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Climate Justice: How Climate Change is Exacerbating the Homelessness Crisis

In 2018, oppressive heat took the lives of 42 people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County, Arizona. One woman experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County said, “Just this year, I had three heat strokes.” Another woman reported, “Lot of people died last year. A man was found dead last year. They left one man lying on the sidewalk over there...He was just laying there in one position for a good long time before they realized he was dead. The heat, it’s… a lot of people been dying from it.” That same year, across the country, Hurricane Michael left more than 1 in 10 residents (roughly 20,000 people) of Bay County, Florida homeless. The alarming acceleration of climate change, manifesting in part through the increased prevalence of superstorms and heat waves, exacerbates the homelessness crisis in the United States. Not only does climate change pose a fatal risk to people experiencing homelessness (through heat waves, air pollution, disease, and natural disasters), it also directly increases rates of homelessness by threatening housing supply. Therefore, successfully ending homelessness requires an understanding of how the destruction of our environment is deeply intertwined with the well-being of people experiencing homelessness, rates of homelessness, and our housing system more broadly.

Climate change is killing people experiencing homelessness. People who are unhoused and unsheltered are uniquely vulnerable to environmental changes. By 2050, air pollution related-mortality is expected to rise by an additional 20-30%. The Homeless Hub notes that people experiencing homelessness experience higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions from air pollution due to the extended periods of time they spend outside. Beyond pollution-caused health impacts, the growing frequency of storms, floods, extreme cold, and dangerous heat waves all disproportionately affect and harm people experiencing homelessness. Just a few weeks ago, a Nashville flood killed two people experiencing homelessness as it destroyed a campsite. In LA County, 19 people experiencing homelessness died over just one weekend during a heatwave. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, there were three times the number of heat waves in the 2010s than there were in the 1960s. For those who may be living on the streets without stable shelter, a lack of access to cool drinking water or air conditioning significantly increases the threat of heat stroke. Even without severe heat waves, a generally warming climate also promotes the spread of certain diseases. The progressively early onset of spring increases the “range and strength of the West Nile Virus,” which is spread by mosquitoes who thrive in warm weather, the Homeless Hub reports. Individuals who have nowhere to sleep except outside or who are forced to spend long hours outdoors due to lack of shelter are more likely to experience the harmful effects of a changing climate, whether in the form of pollution, heat, or disease.

Climate change also exacerbates the affordable housing supply shortage in the United States, expanding the population of people who experience homelessness and making it more difficult for those already experiencing it to become housed. The Center for American Progress describes climate change and extreme weather as an “affordable housing crisis multiplier.” The Center finds that in the United States, there is a shortage of 7 million affordable housing units for extremely low-income renters. Devastating natural disasters, therefore, ravage an already limited housing supply. The 2018 Camp Fire in California destroyed 15,000 homes and displaced 50,000 people, of whom only 10% were able to return one year after the fire. The risk of displacement and destruction by climate change is disproportionately borne by people of color and lower-income communities. The Center for American Progress explains that due to historic housing segregation and discrimination, communities of color and lower-income communities are more often located in flood zones and are less likely to have or receive the resources needed to recover from natural disasters. Even after disasters, rebuilding efforts are also more focused on supporting homeowners and wealthier residents, often neglecting affordable rental units. For example, five years after Hurricane Sandy, only one out of the 33 New York City Housing Authority affordable housing buildings had been rebuilt. A grievous shortage of affordable housing directly contributes to high rates of homelessness and exacerbates the difficulty of transitioning out of homelessness. Climate change and natural disasters not only disproportionately affect the well-being of people experiencing homelessness and low-income communities, but they also disproportionately decimate already limited stock of affordable housing that is critical to ending homelessness.

There are numerous steps our communities and governments can take to both address homelessness and mitigate the effects of climate change on people experiencing homelessness. Some potential solutions include:

  • First, Congress must expand funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program, which funds Emergency Solutions Grants (which support families in regaining stable housing after experiencing a housing crisis) and Continuum of Care programs (which help coordinate and deliver services to people experiencing homelessness as they transition to stable housing).

  • Second, local governments and communities must increase the supply of affordable housing. Numerous policy proposals could achieve this, including zoning reform, taxing land more than structures to promote increased residential density, and investment in technology and methods that decrease the cost of housing construction (such as through modular constructing).

  • Third, the federal government must implement an equitable disaster response plan that prioritizes access to safe housing. The Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition outlines seven principles by which HUD and FEMA should be required to abide. These principles include that everyone impacted by a disaster receives safe temporary housing and that people experiencing homelessness before the disaster receive quality affordable housing. When natural disasters inevitably occur, we must ensure that people receive rapid access to stable housing and communities are rebuilt equitably, supporting low-income renters just as much as homeowners.

  • Fourth, cities must promote the development of resilient infrastructure. Whether through building codes, transportation networks, or energy systems, cities should invest in adapting their physical infrastructure to withstand climate change and natural disaster.

  • Fifth, our communities and governments must address the root causes of climate change. From transitioning to renewable energy, to reducing unnecessary consumption, to improving agricultural processes, a host of interventions can be and are being implemented to promote sustainability and slow climate change.

Each recommendation above is complex and warrants further discussion. What’s clear, however, is that housing stability and environmental change are more intertwined than they may initially appear and that there are a number of levers available to our society to combat both challenges.

At the same time, our communities must recognize that there exist inclusive—and harmful—methods to bolstering climate resilience and alleviating homelessness. In the Climate Justice movement, the term ‘Just Transition’ describes a set of principles, processes, and practices that “build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy...The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future.” Environmental Studies scholar David Pellow defines a similar term ‘Just Resilience’ as “a resilience marked by social and environmental justice...there are forms of resilience that are unjust and we should distinguish between them.” Attaining justice requires more than making the transition to regenerative economies or resilient communities. Equally, if not more, important is how we make that transition, and how that process includes those who have been the most disproportionately affected by climate injustice.

Indeed, cities around the U.S. have already seen ‘green gentrification,’ in which efforts to promote environmental resilience result in increased housing prices and displacement. Scholars Julie Sze and Elizabeth Yeampierre argue that environmental movements in cities such as San Francisco and New York are “increasingly defined by green gentrification” and that “gentrification/displacement is the overarching reality that structures contemporary sustainability and land-use struggles in highly economically stratified cities.” From the construction of parks, targeted urban greening, and even infrastructure projects aimed at curbing the effects of sea level rise, projects designed to promote environmental resilience can often have the adverse effect of increasing desirability and raising housing prices. Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban geographer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona writes, “What you see on the maps is that the areas that gained the greatest amount of green resilient infrastructure are also those that became the most gentrified.” In East Boston, for example, newer resilient shoreline parks largely benefit real estate developers who have constructed buildings like the Clippership Wharf apartments, where rent starts at $2,300 per month. Interviews that Anguelovski and her colleagues conducted in East Boston also uncovered that residents felt culturally and socially excluded from some of the new green spaces developed in the neighborhood as many of them were designed for or located adjacent to new luxury developments. Green gentrification becomes dangerous when it contributes to disproportionate displacement of low-income individuals and people of color, as one of the core tenets of a Just Transition is ensuring that these communities—who have already been at the frontlines of climate change—do not bear the disproportionate, harmful cost of tackling climate change. Instead, and in accordance with those principles, people experiencing homelessness, low-income individuals, and communities of color should be empowered to engage deeply with and lead the processes that determine how their communities achieve climate resilience.

With over half a million Americans experiencing homelessness, homelessness is just as urgent as it is complex. Climate change intersects with housing insecurity—not only harming those already experiencing homelessness, but also exacerbating the causes of homelessness. Recognizing that climate justice is an integral part of ending homelessness once and for all is an important first step. At Breaktime, we are committed to working with our community to address the root causes of climate change in a way that is just, equitable, and inclusive.

This article was written by Tony Shu (Breaktime Co-founder).

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