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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If the opioid epidemic was the top issue plaguing American cities in the last five years, the most urgent problem of the next five is homelessness, a group of American mayors told reporters in D.C. this week.

Why it matters: Homelessness in the U.S. was on the decline after 2010, but it started to increase again in 2016 — and without moves to address the affordable housing crisis driving the issue, we can expect it to keep getting worse, experts say.

"This is the issue of our time," said Bryan Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "It's more people; it's more places .... Cities that haven't experienced it in the past are experiencing it now."

The backdrop: The primary driver of rising homelessness is the exploding cost of housing in coastal superstar cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. L.A. alone saw a 26% jump in its homeless population between 2016 and 2017. Homelessness in New York increased 4% in that time.

  • But the surge in home prices isn't limited to the most populous cities. It's a national trend, Elizabeth Bowen, a professor at the University of Buffalo, tells Axios.
  • Between 1960 and 2017, median household income in the U.S. increased 29%. But in that same period, the median home price went up by 121%, according to a recent study by real estate company Clever.
  • Now homelessness is not only getting worse in the cities were struggling with the problem, but it's also appearing in new places, such as Salt Lake City, Barnett said.

One effective solution would be to address the mental health crisis that underpins homelessness, said Michelle de la Isla, Topeka, Kansas' mayor who was homeless herself when she was younger. Those struggling with a mental illness on top of homelessness find it much more difficult to get back on their feet, she said.

  • But "some cities and some politicians are finding it easier to say we're just going make the problem go away, and we're just gonna cover it up," says Bowen. "And one way to do that is to criminalize homelessness" and arrest people on drug or other charges.
  • When mental health institutions are severely under-funded, "the largest resource for [homeless individuals] is the county jail," Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Quinton Lucas said at the event.

The bottom line: There are a host of ripple effects the country will have to contend with as homelessness increases, Bowen notes. One big impact will be an uptick in costs to the health care system as homelessness is linked to poor mental and physical health.

Go deeper: The zoning puzzle plaguing tech hubs

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden readies massive shifts in policy for his first days in office.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.
  6. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.
Dave Lawler, author of World
3 hours ago - World

Alexey Navalny detained after landing back in Moscow

Navalny and his wife shortly before he was detained. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained upon his return to Moscow on Sunday, which came five months after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He returned despite being warned that he would be arrested.

The latest: Navalny was stopped at a customs checkpoint and led away alone by officers. He appeared to hug his wife goodbye, and his spokesman reports that his lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.

Mike Allen, author of AM
5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden's "overwhelming force" doctrine

President-elect Biden arrives to introduce his science team in Wilmington yesterday. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President-elect Biden has ordered up a shock-and-awe campaign for his first days in office to signal, as dramatically as possible, the radical shift coming to America and global affairs, his advisers tell us. 

The plan, Part 1 ... Biden, as detailed in a "First Ten Days" memo from incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, plans to unleash executive orders, federal powers and speeches to shift to a stark, national plan for "100 million shots" in three months.

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