California dreaming: the nightmarish reality of California’s homelessness crisis

If there was ever going to be a poster child for the American Dream, it would be the state of California. In fact, the pin-up state has been so successful in its sales pitch that the American Dream has faded in favour of the Californian Dream. After all, who isn’t beckoned by the hazy Hollywood sun, rendering hope beyond imagination and driving psychedelic dreams of fortune and freedom? People, including myself, really do dream of California.


The mid-20th century saw the Californian population explode from 1.5 million to 34 million. While the state had always had a gilded atmosphere, thanks to Western migrations urged on by gold rushes and the propaganda of the American Dream, the real pull to California arose with the growth in the importance of pop culture, both in the States and around the world.


The rise of the silver screen in the forties and fifties saw elegant film stars descend upon the state, making Hollywood the nucleus of filmmaking forevermore. In the sixties and seventies, hippies found their home from which a cultural revolution was based. Music was the defining cornerstone of all this. Bands became synonymous with the state, and with the potency of their musical poetry, an illusion was firmly established. From the Beach Boys who were ‘Surfin’ USA’ on the rolling waves of Venice Beach, to Guns N’ Roses who welcomed people to the jungle with open arms.


California houses dreams bigger than can be realised, and now it is a state crumbling into itself.

“Space may be the final frontier but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.” Quite possibly the lyric that best sums up the powers and potential of the Golden State, and if anyone was going to sketch out the Californian Dream so perfectly, it would be the L.A. rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have long taken inspiration from the secrets of the state’s sunny streets. Combining the mystery of the big screen and the ability of music to embellish the world’s view of California, pop culture quickly made sure that the cultural centre of the world would fall upon the West Coast. Not just a place to live, California became an emotional response and a place to dream.


But look beyond the extravagance of movie premiers, turn down the volume on those songs that adorn the Golden State, and you will see the broken Hollywood sign. A modern-day Roman Empire, it would seem that through the relentless reach of pop culture, California has housed dreams bigger than can be realised, and is now a state crumbling into itself. Plighted by severe homelessness, dreams can quickly turn into nightmares.


There were 161,548 unhoused people counted in California in January 2020. That is a rise of almost 31% since 2010. Of this figure, at least 113,660 were classified as ‘unsheltered’—that’s more than 70% of all the unhoused people counted that do not have access to the safety of hotels or even cars. This astronomical figure is considered to be a significant undercount of the actual homelessness figure, given that individuals who did have access to ‘hidden’ shelter, such as the ability to couch surf at a friend’s house for the night, were not included in this snapshot study. The world’s largest sub-national economy, accounting for $3.4 trillion gross state product (GSP), and the home to the most billionaires in the US, is suffering from a stark humanitarian crisis. The reality of life in the Golden State is far from radiant.


Nearly 1,500 unhoused people died on the streets during the pandemic.

And the damning figures do not stop there. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) identified nearly 1,500 unhoused people who died on the streets during the pandemic. Again, this is likely to be an undercount as the data does not include unhoused people who were hospitalised or receiving medical care at the time of their death. 48% of the deaths were attributed as accidental while 19% were natural, and 9% were suicides. Drug and alcohol overdoses were responsible for nearly 40% of the accidental, and thus preventable, deaths.


Ananya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, said: “If we were to see this metric in any other part of the world, we would dismiss that place as one of great poverty, as a violator of human rights, as a predatory government that exploits its people.”


With people being sold a dream, state officials do not want to drop the illusion. The action taken by the state is miniscule and largely aimed at the people who can afford the fancy houses and fear the crime that might be perpetrated by the homeless. Those suffering on the streets are unheard and unwanted. The majority of California’s largest cities have passed sweeping laws that prohibit camping in certain zones, and San Francisco’s mayor is pushing for a police crackdown on the use of drugs by unhoused people. College students that find themselves homeless, rather than be housed temporarily, are being given reserved parking spaces where they can stay overnight.


These actions are a real-life emblem of sweeping things under the carpet—the state can hide away its ‘dirty’ problem and maintain the illusion of success that continues to draw swathes of dream chasers. Although the California governor, Gavin Newsom, is pushing a $14bn investment into solutions for homelessness, which would include the creation of 55,000 new housing and treatment units, past experience shows that this is unlikely to produce long-term results. During the pandemic, Project Roomkey, a programme providing motel spaces to 50,000 people, failed to deliver as people struggled to find permanent housing when they reached the end of their hotel stays, resulting in a mass exodus back to the streets.


Great wealth and even greater poverty stand side by side—California has simultaneously been the richest and the poorest state in the US.

What is really needed is affordable housing. According to the Zillow Home Value Index, the median home value in California has increased to $799,311 (18.5% since last year) and residents are paying a premium in their utility bills. For the average person, paradise is too pricey, and without long-term, permanent solutions, the unhoused population of the Golden State will continue to be failed.


Yet, in the face of such a nightmarish reality, people still dare to dream. Pop culture is still spinning tales of an endless summer, tinted with ostentatious luxury. Netflix’s Selling Sunset is the latest example. The popular show on the streaming giant displays wealth and ostentation to nauseating levels, especially considering the degree of homelessness and poverty that is universal across the state. The estate agents wear couture and houses sell in multi-million-dollar deals. From this, people are once again drawn to the mirage that rises from the desert—California has unlimited potential and a chance to strike gold.


However, underneath this quixotic image lies an ethical issue. Great wealth and even greater poverty stand side by side—California has simultaneously been the richest and the poorest state in the US. Should the mass media and influence of pop culture still be able to disperse delusional dreams? The more dreamers that fall victim to the sales pitch of California, the more money that the top 1% of the state will earn. With a world that cares more for price tags than people, pop culture will continue to be the snake charmer, entrancing a population despite the festering wounds that plight the state.


The reality of life under the sun is evidently darker, and as more people arrive, more people will find themselves unhoused, holding nothing but a few broken dreams as a relic of their misadventure to the golden land.


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