Housing the Homeless:
Tents for Everyone, or Palaces for a Few?

When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to spend another $1 billion to “address homelessness,” politically connected developers and donors must have been thrilled. These corrupt special interests are part of an ecosystem of crony businesses, “nonprofits,” bureaucrats, litigators, professional agitators, and public relations wizards. Known as the Homeless Industrial Complex, for years they’ve been getting filthy rich, wasting billions, and solving nothing.

It doesn’t take a math whiz or an economist to see the scandalous absurdity at work. When you spend $500,000 or more for every unit of “permanent supportive housing,” you will never get everyone under a roof. This is particularly the case when you are not only offering the homeless apartments that are better than the ones the working poor could ever hope to afford, but you’re not even demanding they stop smoking crack as a prerequisite for getting free housing.

Crackheads of America! Come to Los Angeles! And they come, wave after wave. Drugs are legal and petty crimes are decriminalized. And now they’ve occupied the city. Residents are told that to complain is racist, or classist, an unacceptable expression of “privilege.” They’re told that they are victims of “quality of life” infractions, a second-order concern, while the “right to housing” is a first-order concern. And yet—at half a million a pop—the demand increases much faster than the supply.

California’s homeless explosion didn’t merely occur because the housing industry got so overregulated that developers could no longer make money building affordable, modest homes. Nor is it the result of Proposition 47, which decriminalized crime, or Proposition 57, which emptied the prisons. Those reasons were major contributing factors, but another one overrides them all: The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court ruling in 2006, Jones v. City of Los Angeles, that required police to be able to offer homeless people “permanent supportive housing” before moving them off the street.

And to assist Los Angeles in complying with the Jones ruling? In came the developers, the nonprofits, the bureaucrats, and all the rest. What a fantastic scam it has been, with no end in sight.

Alternatives to the Boondoggle

What Garcetti could do, and should have done the day he took office, is challenge the specifics of the Jones ruling. Why must “permanent supportive housing” cost $500,000, or more, per unit? Why should this boondoggle archipelago of free housing be sprinkled into expensive neighborhoods? Apart from boosting the profits on cost-plus construction contracts, and, of course, being “inclusive,” what does any of this accomplish?

Garcetti should hire the best legal minds on earth—and with his latest slush of cash, that should be no problem—and obtain a judicial ruling that permits “permanent supportive housing” to consist of converted shipping containers, or 120 square foot sheds that can be purchased at Home Depot, or tents. Once the pathway is cleared in court, shelter camps could be set up in months.

If Garcetti wasn’t more interested in pleasing his developer donors than in helping the homeless, he would demand that the governor send in the California National Guard to construct homeless camps in the vast and inexpensive highlands of North Los Angeles County. They could be constructed using the same blueprint that governs refugee camp construction all over the world, and they could be placed on state or federally owned land. Homeless individuals could be moved into these camps within weeks instead of years, for millions instead of billions, with priority going to the drunks, the druggies, the crooks, and the crazies.

To the inevitable critics, Garcetti could explain that it’s not compassionate at all to leave these troubled people on the street. He would explain that heroin addiction is not a “lifestyle” and stealing is not a “poverty crime,” it’s a “crime.” Some of the billions that would be saved could be used to treat and train the people brought to these mass shelters.

The New York Times describes how refugee camps were set up in Syria:

Within 24 hours, the Turkish government set up an emergency tent camp for them in southern Hatay Province. In less than three years, it was operating 22 camps serving 210,000 refugees, mostly in provinces along its roughly 500-mile-long border with Syria.

To overindulge in recommending simplistic solutions is not constructive, but neither is continuing down the corrupt path of spending hundreds of thousands to house each homeless individual. Innovative solutions are available. In response to refugee crises around the world, IKEA came up with a modular shelter that costs $1,000 and can be rapidly assembled to house five people each.

“Proven Strategies”? Please

The problem with sheltering the homeless, however, shares another problem that is common to housing and development issues of almost every kind in California. It is prohibitively expensive to file the applications and obtain the required analyses and permits, as well as to overcome endless litigation, comply with countless regulations and restrictions, and negotiate “compromises” with activist groups that demand perfection on their terms. But it can be done. Want to put a solar farm onto a tortoise habitat? Done. Want to site windmills on an avian flyway? Presto.

A recent federal court ruling in Los Angeles ordered the city and county to “offer some form of shelter or housing to the entire homeless population of skid row by October.” Judge David Carter ordered the bureaucrats to find a place for single women and unaccompanied children within 90 days, families within 120 days, and everyone within 180 days. It is no longer business as usual for the Homeless Industrial Complex.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, an attorney representing the county has threatened an appeal, stating “There is no legal basis for an injunction because the county is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on proven strategies.”

To utter something this ridiculous with a straight face requires either an actor of extraordinary skill or an extremely expensive attorney. Has anything stupider and more transparently false been uttered in the history of the world? But to be fair, in an adversarial system of justice, we expect no less from our advocates.

Here again, however, Mayor Garcetti and his cohorts who run Los Angeles County are fighting the wrong case. If they weren’t committed to the current, conveniently corrupt interpretation of the Jones decision, they would applaud Judge Carter’s ruling. It not only clarifies the Jones ruling, it demands the city and county find more cost-effective ways to house their homeless population.

When it comes to helping the homeless, is there finally light at the end of the tunnel? Not if Eric Garcetti and his attorneys and donors have anything to say about it.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

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