How is gentrification linked to homelessness?
How has homelessness changed over time?
We usually think of the homeless as people we meet who live on the street for long stretches of time, possibly because they struggle with untreated mental illness, addiction, or disability. These individuals probably belong to the 14% of the U.S. homeless population categorized as chronically homeless.1
It is difficult to know how much gentrification contributes to chronic homelessness. Some would argue that because all homelessness is rooted in the lack of affordable housing, gentrification directly affects chronic homelessness. For example, an editorial published in the Tennessean notes that a 35% increase in those seeking emergency shelter in Nashville between 2014 and 2015 corresponded with rapidly rising housing costs over the same time period.2 Yet lack of employment and lack of access to treatment are easy targets to blame, too.
In any case, it is clear that gentrification makes it harder to house this population near the services they need and makes it harder for service providers to remain in expensive downtown areas.3 In Seattle and other cities, gentrification can also trigger harsher policing of the street homeless as downtowns migrate to a tourist and retail economy.4
A much larger but less visible part of the homeless population is transitionally or episodically homeless.5 This group includes families and youth who live in cars, crowd into single-family units, or accept deeply substandard housing conditions.
Gentrification does not just contribute to their homelessness in a general way by decreasing the supply of affordable housing; it affects them in a direct, spatial way by forcing them to double up or displacing them from their neighborhoods. Instead of becoming more visible (i.e., becoming targets for harsher policing), this group gradually becomes invisible. Forced to seek cheaper housing in the suburbs, families slip out of reach of the services designed to help the most vulnerable, which often remain concentrated downtown.6
Such families may escape the intensified policing of public space, but they are left to the private whim of their landlords, who can engage in rent extortion, evictions, and neglect unchecked by the public eye. The suburbanization of poverty also entails poorer access to public transportation, and thus both higher transportation costs generally and greater vulnerability to unanticipated costs when cars break down (or in Denver, when snowfall triggers a law requiring tires with chains).
Family transience in the suburbs, as opposed to denser urban areas, causes children to be shunted between multiple schools in a single academic year, with detriment to their own wellbeing and that of their classmates.7 Unstable housing also increases the likelihood of domestic abuse by as much as four times—a crime that may also be more difficult to prevent and police in suburban contexts.8
Finally, homeless families in the suburbs may have more trouble finding or forming community organizations that could provide agency in bringing about societal change.
1. National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Chronically Homeless." 2016.
2. Samuel Lester. "Lack of Affordable Housing Drives Homelessness." The Tennessean, March 20, 2016.
3. Geoffrey DeVerteuil, "Evidence of Gentrification-Induced Displacement among Social Services," London and Los Angeles Urban Studies, 48, no. 8 (2011): 1563-1580.
4. Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert. Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
5. Randall Kuhn and Dennis Culhane. "Applying Cluster Analysis to Test a Typology of Homelessness by Shelter Utilization: Results from the Analysis of Administrative Data." American Journal of Community Psychology, 26, no.2 (1998): 207-232.
6. DeVerteuil, "Evidence of Gentrification-Induced Displacement."
7. Amy Franco. "The Relationship between School Mobility and the Acquisition of Early Literacy Skills." Doctoral Dissertation, University of Toledo, 2013.
8. Joanne Pavao, Jenniver Alvarez, Nikki Baumrind, Marta Induni, and Rachel Kimerling. "Intimate Partner Violence and Housing Instability," American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32 (2007): 143-6.