Solutions in Plain Sight
California could make a major dent in its homelessness problem merely by reversing some of its most destructive policies.
Half of America’s so-called unsheltered homeless live in California. It’s not hard to understand why. Along with having the most hospitable weather on earth, California is a welcoming place for drug addicts, petty thieves, and anyone else attracted to beachside living, free government food, and no requirement to work.
Federal policy has played a part in California’s homelessness problem. The counterproductive “Housing First” rule, emanating from the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama era, favors programs that prioritize “supportive housing” over activities like drug counseling or job training.
The courts have given California further incentives to reject a more holistic approach to reducing homelessness. Most notably, a ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Martin v. Boise, prohibits enforcement of local vagrancy laws unless a community offers sufficient shelter beds. Rather than challenge this ruling, cities across California’s forgiving coast have allowed bureaucrats and “nonprofit” developers (with for-profit vendors and interlocking directorates) to build up a homeless-industrial complex—a vast, parasitic enterprise that constructs “permanent supportive housing” at an average cost well in excess of $500,000 per unit, and at a rate that doesn’t begin to keep pace with the growth of the unsheltered population.
California’s state laws add fuel to the fire. There is Proposition 47, sold to voters in 2014 as somehow guaranteed to reduce crime merely by downgrading felony drug and property crimes to misdemeanors. On top of that came Proposition 57, approved by voters in 2016, and abetted by AB 109, passed by the legislature in 2011; both of these released tens of thousands of “nonviolent” criminals out of state prisons and county jails without the means to monitor and assist their transition back into society. All these measures, designed to lower crime and restore order to chaotic streets, have had the opposite effect.
It isn’t as if solutions to California’s homeless epidemic aren’t hiding in plain sight: repeal Prop. 47, Prop. 57, and AB 109, and watch tens of thousands of homeless suddenly find housing. If laws against vagrancy, drug use, and petty theft are once again enforced, it will no longer be possible to live on the Venice Beach boardwalk, perpetually high, scaring the straights, and stealing whatever amenities aren’t provided for free by government “ambassadors.” Once the choice is “go to the shelter or go to jail,” the incentives will reverse, and the remaining problems will become more manageable.
California’s shelter situation is also not without solutions. The new facilities being built are grossly overpriced and sited in locations deliberately chosen to escalate costs, based on the absurd premise that everyone deserves to live on the beach in Southern California regardless of their means. There is no reason that the City and County of Los Angeles cannot erect shelters on less expensive real estate. These shelters could be built on one of L.A. County’s estimated 14,000 government-owned properties, or, if they cannot be located on land outside of residential neighborhoods, the city or county could purchase land in rural areas. Huge all-weather tents that cost under $1,000 each could house homeless families with children. Why aren’t California communities trying out solutions like these?
There’s plenty of money to do so—a stupefying amount of money, in fact, almost none of which is spent wisely. Last year, Los Angeles County spent over $1 billion on homeless programs. The City of Los Angeles is planning to spend $1.3 billion this year. The other 87 cities in L.A. County are no doubt also allocating substantial funds for the homeless. It’s reasonable to estimate that more than $3 billion will get spent this year, overall, by local governments in the county to assist, at last count, 75,000 homeless, 55,000 of them unsheltered. That’s $40,000 per person. More affordable solutions would leave a lot of money left over for security, operations, food, health care, job training, and drug counseling.
Anyone who expects California’s state and local governments to do anything sensible, however, is ignoring history and the corruption that grips the state. Amendment 2, passed by the state legislature and now scheduled to go before California voters in March 2024, will take away the right of local governments to reject the placement of public-housing projects in their neighborhoods. Piling on, the state legislature is also offering California’s spring primary voters Amendment 10, championed by Governor Gavin Newsom, which will declare an inalienable “right to housing” for all Californians. Imagine the implementation of this beast.
What about deregulating the most over-regulated housing market in America—the real reason housing is unaffordable in California? Not a chance. Better to tamper with the state constitution so that the government and its cronies can handle California’s housing shortage and homelessness surplus. They’ve done everything so well so far.
Not to be outdone by Sacramento’s follies, Los Angeles has come up with a “Responsible Hotel Ordinance,” a measure that would “require hotel operators to report to the city, every day, the number of vacant rooms at their establishments so the city can send homeless people over to the hotels to stay in the rooms that night.” Taxpayers will foot the bill, of course. The impact on tourists and conventioneers? Likely severe.
Some might argue that housing the unsheltered in tents is inhumane. They’re wrong. But it is inhumane to spend obscene amounts of money on overbuilt, overpriced, inappropriately located “supportive housing” while leaving addicts dying in the streets and letting criminals terrorize public venues. Let’s build the tents and use all the suddenly available cash to help these individuals recover their sobriety, their sanity, their skills, their dignity, and their lives.
This article originally appeared on city-journal.org
Edward Ring is a senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).