When deducting from the count those homeless individuals who at least have a roof over their heads, half of America’s so-called “unsheltered” homeless are living in California. It’s not hard to understand why. Along with the most hospitable weather on earth, California also is a welcoming place for drug addicts, petty thieves, and anyone else attracted to beachside living with free government food and not the slightest requirement to work.
Federal law doesn’t help. The disastrous “Housing First” rule, emanating from HUD during the Obama era, restricts use of federal funds to help the homeless to paying for housing to the exclusion of, for example, drug counseling and job training, until “supportive housing” is constructed for every homeless person – a moving target and an impossible goal.
If federal funds weren’t enough incentive to reject a more holistic approach to reducing homelessness, there are a series of 9th Circuit Court rulings, Martin vs Boise in particular, that prohibit enforcement of vagrancy laws unless sufficient shelter beds are available. And that ruling, instead of being challenged by beleaguered cities across California’s forgiving coast, has been parlayed by bureaucrats and “nonprofit” developers (with for-profit vendors and interlocking directorates) into the Homeless Industrial Complex, a vast parasitic empire where “permanent supportive housing” is constructed at an average cost well in excess of $500,000 per unit, at a rate that doesn’t begin to keep pace with the growth in the unsheltered population.
California’s state laws add fuel to the fire. There is Prop. 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 Prop. 57, approved by voters in 2016, abetted by AB 109, passed by the legislature in 2011, both of which released tens of thousands of “non-violent” criminals out of state prisons and county jails without the means to monitor and assist their transition back into society.
If all these enlightened steps successfully pushed by California’s policymakers and public influencers were designed to lower crime and restore order to chaotic streets, they have demonstrably had the opposite effect. From Arkansas to Atlanta and from New York City to Oklahoma, addicts and predators now follow the setting sun, to a land where anything goes.
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. Once vagrancy, drug use, and repetitive petty theft are once again made illegal and convictions carry consequences, 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, the number of remaining homeless will be magically reduced, and the remaining challenge will become more manageable.
As for California’s shelters, the new ones 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. California might instead consider the example of how New York City has decided to handle their foreign refuge influx (thank you, Governor Abbot, for focusing the minds of NYC bureaucrats). In a rare display of cost-effective innovation, they have – virtually overnight – constructed an 84,000 square foot semi-permanent facility that can be expanded to house up to 1,000 refugees. The cost for this structure so far, already with a 500 person capacity is an astonishingly reasonable $325,000.
There is no reason the City of Los Angeles, as well as the County of Los Angeles, cannot erect similar shelters on less expensive real estate in the city or rural areas of the county. These shelters can be built on one of the county’s estimated 14,000 government owned properties, or if they cannot be located on land outside of residential neighborhoods, land can be purchased in areas with lower cost rural real estate. As for families with children, huge, beautiful all-weather tents cost under $1,000 each. Why aren’t solutions like this being tested?
There’s plenty of money. In fact, there is a stupefying amount of money, almost none of it being spent wisely. Last year the County of Los Angeles spent “over $1.0 billion” on homeless programs. The City of Los Angeles is planning to spend $1.3 billion this year on homeless programs. The other 87 cities in Los Angeles County are surely also allocating substantial funds for the homeless. It is reasonable to estimate over $3.0 billion will be spent this year, overall, by local governments in Los Angeles County to assist what at last count were 75,000 homeless, 55,000 of them unsheltered. That’s $40,000 per person. The cost for a structure like what NYC has come up with for their refugees? Less than $200 per person. That’s a lot of money left over for security, operations, food, health care, job training, and drug counseling.
Anyone expecting to see California’s state and local governments do anything sensible, however, is ignoring the momentum of history and the magnitude of the corruption that grips the state with an implacable and irresistible tenacity evocative of a Burmese python squeezing the life out of a rabbit. Passed by the state legislator and on deck to be sold to voters in March 2024 is the proposed Amendment 2, which will take away the right for local governments anywhere in the state to reject welfare housing projects in their neighborhoods. Piling on, the state legislature is also offering California’s spring primary voters the proposed Amendment 10, championed by the smart money favorite to be U.S. president in another 18 months, Governor Newsom. Amendment 10 will declare all Californians to have an inalienable “right to housing.” Imagine the implementation of this beast.
Pigs already at the trough of the homeless industrial complex must be slavering in anticipation. But 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 the government and their cronies can continue to handle California’s shortage of housing and surplus of homeless. They’ve done everything so well so far.
Not to be outdone, the City of Los Angeles, blessed with a city council so hard-left that they would make Nicolás Maduro blush, has come up with the “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.” The cost? Paid by the taxpayers. The impact on tourists and conventioneers? Tough. After all, these are mere “quality of life” inconveniences, the price of privilege.
One might argue that rounding up the unsheltered and herding them into tents is inhumane. They would be wrong. Spending obscene amounts of money on overbuilt, overpriced, inappropriately located “supportive housing,” while addicts are left on the street to die and predators terrorize cherished public venues; that is inhumane. Build the tents, move them in, and use the piles of suddenly available cash to help them recover their sobriety, their sanity, their skills, their dignity, and their lives.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in City Journal.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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