Tackling the immensity and complexity of homelessness has proved itself beyond the reach of local governments and their taxpayers, even those as generous as Los Angelenos. That is why President Donald Trump’s threat–or offer–to intervene in California’s struggle against this affliction deserves close skeptical, attention.
Is this an unexpected compassionate offer from Trump to use the power and money of the federal government to remedy the national disgrace of homelessness? Or will he use the homeless and their multiplying street and park encampments as some kind of a political weapon, as he is doing with undocumented immigrants?
There is much the federal government can accomplish for the homeless, including those it has a special responsibility for, the numerous homeless veterans.
“To cut to the chase, if you are committed to working with America’s cities and local leaders to address the national epidemic, there’s a lot you and your administration can do,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a letter to Trump. With Garcetti’s support, tax increases and bond issues have been approved to build housing and provide services for a growing homeless population that numbers almost 59,000 in Los Angeles County and 36,300 in the city. About three quarters of them live outdoors or in rude tents and motor vehicles.
Trump’s offer, if sincere, would mean a big change in the way the nation deals with homelessness.
The homeless crisis has festered below the national consciousness for years, never severe enough to enter the American political debate or the mainstream news through Democratic and Republican administrations. It has been a story covered by local papers and television, a problem to be solved by local government.
I saw that in the early 1980s, when I headed the Los Angeles Times city-county bureau. Our excellent reporter Judith Michaelson told me she had learned of people living under freeway bridges. On July 11, 1982, Michaelson and Louis Sahagun reported on this previously unknown situation. “New Wave of Homelessness” the headline read.
Programs to care for the homeless were rudimentary at the time. State mental hospitals had largely closed, with few replacements. Addicted and mentally ill women and men began appearing on the streets only to be cycled in and out of jail. Heroin and other opiates swept through neighborhoods, their victims swelling the ranks of the homeless even more. Treatment was primitive.
Housing shortages were a major cause of homelessness Rent for modest apartments and hotel rooms zoomed up, especially as old buildings were replaced by the expensive new condos and apartment houses in downtown Los Angeles and other places. Working people were forced from their apartments, moving into their motor vehicles and then the streets. As the aerospace industry shrunk and manufacturing plants closed, jobs became scarce. The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression struck in 2007, hitting Southern California hard.
The federal government’s most effective response to the crisis are housing vouchers, payments that subsidize rent for the poor. More than 5 million receive such vouchers. But the housing shortage and high rents have made it difficult for recipients to find apartments or landlords who will accept them.
In addition, Trump has proposed reducing funds for the vouchers and imposing work requirements on recipients. And the administration is considering whether to deny such vouchers to families that include undocumented immigrants. Access to public housing and other benefits would also be banned to such families.
These cuts, combined with Trump’s rhetoric, do not bode well for Garcetti’s hopes for federal help.
. “Take a look at what’s going on,”Trump said of Los Angeles. “We’re going to have to step in and do something about it. Because we can’t allow that to happen to our great cities. Los Angeles is a great city. Clean it up. You’ve got to do something. You can’t have it. These are our great American cities and they’re an embarrassment.
The Washington Post quoted government officials as saying they are considering relocating homeless residents of Skid Row to an unused FAA facility in Hawthorne.
Hearing Trump’s words and reading his proposals, Los Angeles’ Democratic political leaders, who control city hall and the county hall of administration, are awaiting the Trump intervention with the same apprehension they have at the approach of fire season.
That was clear last week when City Councilman Paul Krekorian from the San Fernando Valley spoke at a luncheon of the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum organized by public affairs consultant Emma Schafer.
I asked him if he thought Trump wants to treat the homeless as he does undocumented immigrants, using the crisis as a move to stir up his political base.
“If he really wants to help this problem, bring in federal resources by all means,” Krekorian said. But he said he “sees no evidence the administration cares about the causes of homelessness–poverty, addiction, mental illness, housing and the rest. Trump, he said, is showing “an extraordinary measure of hypocrisy…making a photo op of the worst humanitarian crisis in our history.”
For Trump to prove Krekorian wrong, the president would have to show a compassion that so far has been beyond him.