When Jacob Riis published his photographs of late 19th-century urban poverty, he invoked French author François Rabelais’s words: “One half the world does not know how the other half lives.” That ignorance may have been understandable in the age when the poor were sequestered in tenements and slums, but in today’s gentrified cities, the two halves share the frame.
A viral photograph of a young woman in Los Angeles posing for a photograph while a homeless man sleeps on the street at her feet exemplifies the 21st-century urban reality. We see how the other half lives, but we don’t let it distract us from taking our selfies.
According to the 2015 annual homeless assessment performed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness in the United States has been declining steadily since 2007. But conditions on the west coast are different.
In 2015, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii were four of the five states to see the greatest increase in their homeless populations (the fifth was New York). California alone accounts for 21% of the nation’s homeless population. And while nationwide, 31% of homeless people have some kind of shelter at night, California, Oregon and Hawaii all have unsheltered rates above 50%. In California, 63.7% of the homeless population lacks shelter.