How Los Angeles Wildfires Could Make Its Homelessness Crisis That Much Tougher To Solve

As wildfires blaze onward, entering Los Angeles, there's worry that the southern California wildfires could worsen the homeless crisis plaguing LA. The problem has gotten so intense on the West Coast that LA County supervisors called for a state declaration of emergency on California’s homelessness in 2016. Now, the southern California wildfires could potentially put more people on the streets as they're forced to flee with no guarantee they'll have a home or job to return to. The LA area has already evacuated an estimated 200,000 people, and forecasts of 80 mph winds suggest the worst has yet to come.

In recent years, chronic homelessness on the West Coast has spiked in major cities from San Diego to Seattle. In LA County, for example, there are nearly 58,000 homeless people — a 23 percent increase from 2016. The tech industry's economic boom has caused housing prices to soar, making middle- to low- income workers unable to afford homes in increasingly gentrified areas. Once firefighters contain the southern California wildfires, there is a possibility the homeless situation will echo what has already been happening in northern California.

In October, price gouging after the northern California wildfires created a second wave of homelessness, said Jennielynn Holmes, senior director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa. When rent jumped in Sonoma and Napa Counties, some displaced people entered homelessness for the first time because they struggled to afford new homes, she said on the radio program Here & Now. Those who were already homeless before the fires faced the added challenge of competing with the newly displaced people for affordable housing.

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The wildfires exacerbated the housing crisis for the homeless working population, one that includes teachers, security officers, janitors, and restaurant workers — many of whom contribute to the daily needs of Silicon Valley giants. Priced out of the housing market before and after the fires, some families turned to living in RVs down the street from tech companies and startup executives.

Now, San Diego and L.A. Counties face a similar dilemma unless the state government can step in to block price gouging after the wildfires. Investigators plan to enforce a price gouging provision in the state penal code that prohibits anyone from raising prices more than 10 percent following the declaration of a state of emergency, said a spokesman for the California state attorney general’s office. That goes for other necessities, too, not just housing.

"Price gouging during a public emergency isn't just outrageous, it's illegal," LA City Attorney Mike Feuer said to NBC Southern California. "Consumers should be very wary of price spikes for hotel rooms, gasoline and emergency items like generators. If you suspect price gouging, report it to my office immediately. When appropriate we will prosecute."

In fact, you can report possible incidences of price gouging via the City Attorney's Office online or by calling (213) 978-8340.

Meanwhile, the future could look bleak for those who are already homeless in the region. LA has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. Colleen Murphy, coordinator of outreach at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authorities, said to Newsweek:

A number of our shelters are close to the evacuation zone, so we might have a problem there. We are working with the Red Cross in case we get an overflow of homeless and take them to [available] shelters. If [homeless individuals] don’t want to be in the shelter, we still want to help them out because air quality is bad.

As the southern California wildfires destroy homes, businesses, and other facilities, the Red Cross Los Angeles Chapter has opened two evacuation shelters. A Red Cross spokesperson told Newsweek the organization does not turn any person away from their services, whether they're homeless or evacuated persons.