Governor’s Homeless Proposal is All Wrong

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

As sure as California has an exploding homeless problem, it’s almost a certainty that our state and local leaders – elected and otherwise – don’t have a clue as how to deal with it.  To wit, Joel Fox, in this space recently, conducted an excellent examination of Governor Newsom’s pre-budget plan to spend nearly $1.5 billion to build housing for homeless individuals.  To that I add this critique:  It’s a pointless plan.  Primarily because for most street people shelter is not what is most needed.  Help with their mental illness maladies or abuse of both drugs and alcohol is.  An investment in treatment would be a better use of the money.

Building more emergency shelters is the only smart thing about the Governor’s proposal.  In many instances, emergency shelters make sense.  And, there is a serious shortage of them in the state, for sure.  So, state dollars to build more is a good thing, so long as the sponsors work with tenants before rulemaking.

But, the larger causes of homelessness aren’t being addressed by the Governor’s plan.  Homelessness is rarely an issue of affordable housing.  The main reason people are living in filth is mental – illness or addiction, or both.  Governor Newsom should ignore his first impressions, study the problem more carefully then direct his proposed new appropriations to treatment facilities.

Said Alice Baum and Donald Burnes, who studied homelessness for years before publishing their findings around the turn of the century:

“Homelessness occurs when people no longer have relationships; they have drifted into isolation, often running away from the support networks they could count on in the past.”

This reality helps explain why certain homeless individuals – better than 60 percent – refuse to be moved from the street, despite good intentions.

There are many problems with the Governor’s proposal, including those articulated by Fox as well as the fundamental flaw outlined above.  Here are a few of the main ones.  First, $1.5 billion, at today’s construction prices – approximately $500,000 per unit – won’t build much in the way of affordable housing.  About 3,000 units, or about 30 times less than the annual need.  (Moreover, on any given night there are about 150,000 homeless in California.)

Secondly, enforcement is laughable.  Indeed, in an increasing number of California communities there are fewer and fewer laws to enforce.  Meanwhile, crimes by homeless individuals are on the rise.  Take San Francisco, and its new district attorney, Chesa Boudin – who boasted during his campaign that he’s never prosecuted a case.  That, combined with a severely diminished criminal code, means few crimes are prosecuted.  Unless a crime rises to a level of $950 it won’t be pursued.  Expose yourself, you’ll only get a citation.  Rob a convenience store, citation.  Break into a car, citation.  Defecate in public, citation.

There is a reason the law now says “don’t touch” homeless individuals or their street encampments.  It’s because homeless people are victims, our leaders say.  Crushing market forces are to blame, we’re told.  Never mind the growing piles of garbage or feces.  Ignore the surge of crime rates and drug use.  “Be compassionate, and just leave these down-on-their-luck folks alone,” they say.

Chris Rufo, Director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the Discovery Institute, has seen homelessness grow in Seattle over the years and is all too familiar with the accompanying politics:

“The campaign of unlimited compassion has devolved into permissiveness, enablement, crime and disorder.  Complaints about homeless encampments are a parade of horrors:  theft, drugs, rape, prostitution, assaults, needles and feces.”

Finally, cleaning things up will be a tall task.  Matters locally have gotten out of control.  First of all, thanks to lax law enforcement, homeless individuals now rule the neighborhoods in which they dwell.  They are virtually free to publicly relieve themselves on the streets and sidewalks of many urban areas; they shoot up drugs everywhere, leaving numerous used hypodermic needles behind; and, as previously stated, they commit crimes with impunity.  Approaching these individuals is dangerous and forget trying to lure them into shelters for the night.

Next, some local leaders, like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – about whom some say the awful homelessness situation in the City dashed his presidential ambitions – are in denial.  A prominent non-profit, while observing the state’s poor handling – and shallow understanding – of its homeless crisis, remarked:

“Elected officials at the local and state levels can’t seem to get a handle on the explosion of homelessness in California, (simply saying) the increase in homelessness is because of the lack of affordable housing, and yet they continue to pass laws that increase the cost of creating not just affordable housing, but all types of housing.  No one argues that the cost of housing isn’t a significant factor that leads many to move to cheaper areas and even out of the state.  And no one argues that it’s not a good thing to try to find some kind of housing for those living out in the streets.  But the argument that housing alone solves homelessness is its own kind of denial – particularly in California.”

Lastly, California suffers from the highest rate of poverty in the nation – more than 18 percent of the total state population, or nearly one in five Californians.  Even if it wanted to help homeless individuals, the state would have to overcome the poverty issue, seriously exacerbating the entirety of both problems.  And, if you thought  the state might dedicate some of the billions of “surplus” it’s earned over the past few years, consider that California still must pay out over one trillion dollars to retired and retiring public employees.

“Look before you leap” might serve as the right warning to the Governor for his attempt to tackle homelessness.  Trouble is, homeless people living in California have already leapt – and unless something is done, they’re here to stay.
 

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