The homeless population in California now tops 160,000, concentrated in Los Angeles County, but growing in every major city and in smaller towns up and down the state. Despite throwing tens of billions of federal, state, and local spending at the problem, the number of homeless increases every year. Expensive housing is part of the problem, and increasing the supply and lowering the cost of homes might help.
It is a huge mistake, however, to claim that a shortage of housing is the primary cause of homelessness in the Golden State. After all, during 2021 an estimated 103,000 new housing units were built in California, slightly more than half of them homes and the rest apartments. Meanwhile, California’s total population actually declined by 182,000 people, the first time that’s happened in over a century.
There must be more to this puzzle than housing, and there is: California’s homeless problem is caused by the inability of law enforcement and health professionals to deal effectively with criminals, substance abusers, and the mentally ill. If these people were taken off the streets and treated appropriately, the remaining homeless could easily be accommodated by existing shelter programs. Solving the homeless crisis requires reassessing the underlying assumptions informing the policies of recent years, rethinking the nature and meaning of compassion, and recalibrating where tolerance ends and law enforcement begins.
As it is, the so-called “housing first” policy has been a disaster. It has spawned a Homeless Industrial Complex of developers, public bureaucrats, and assorted “nonprofits” who have squandered billions on supportive housing and shelters that are outrageously expensive and place little or no requirements on occupants. The average per-unit cost for “permanent supportive housing” has been well over $500,000, and at that price, only a small fraction of California’s homeless have gotten under a roof.
Meanwhile, from Venice Beach to downtown San Francisco, and in countless other neighborhoods and urban cores, junkies, alcoholics, schizophrenics, and predators are sleeping, shitting, and shooting up in plain sight. It is an environmental, health, and safety catastrophe, and the situation is worse than ever.
How Did the Homeless Crisis Get So Bad?
An assortment of policy failures can be directly linked to why homelessness in California is a bigger problem than ever. They have taken the form of overzealous court rulings, citizen-approved ballot measures that wreaked havoc in their unintended consequences, and flawed legislation.
Court Decisions: The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, unsurprisingly, is the author of at least three rulings that have tied the hands of law enforcement in dealing with the homeless. The most significant of these is Jones v. the City of Los Angeles, decided in 2006, which ruled that law enforcement and city officials can no longer enforce the ban on sleeping on sidewalks anywhere within the Los Angeles city limits until a sufficient amount of permanent supportive housing could be built. Subsequent to the Jones ruling, activist attorneys repeatedly have sued cities and counties to force them to define “permanent supportive housing” with specifications that make it far more difficult and expensive to get anything built.
The practical impact of these rulings is to create private space wherever a homeless person camps on publicly owned property. Apart from trying—often ineffectively—to prevent the homeless from blocking passage on roads and sidewalks, if a homeless person wants to camp in a public space, that person cannot be removed.
State Ballot Initiatives: In 2014 California voters approved Proposition 47, which downgraded drug and property crimes. Proposition 47 has led to what police derisively refer to as “catch and release,” because suspects are only issued citations with a court date, and let go. With respect to the homeless, passage of this initiative has made it a waste of time for police to arrest anyone for openly using illegal drugs or for petty theft (defined as stealing items worth less than $950 per day). Only very serious crimes are still investigated. Proposition 47 has enabled anarchy among the homeless and in the neighborhoods where homeless are concentrated.
In 2016, California voters approved Proposition 57, intended to make state prison inmates convicted of nonviolent felony crimes eligible for parole. About 7,000 inmates immediately became eligible, and as of early 2016, there were about 25,000 nonviolent state felons who could seek early release and parole under Proposition 57. We can hope that most of these released inmates reintegrated successfully into society. But those among this at-risk population who did not reintegrate joined California’s homeless.
State Legislation: Foremost among recent state laws that have exacerbated the homeless problem is AB 109, passed in 2011, which released tens of thousands of “nonviolent” criminals out of county jails due to overcrowding without providing adequate means to monitor and assist their transition back into society. Thousands of these inmates were coping with drug addiction and mental illness, and they have found their way onto California’s streets and public spaces. Many of them are “non-violent” drug dealers or convicted thieves. As with Proposition 57, AB 109 has changed the character of California’s homeless population.
No summary of counterproductive state legislation would be complete without mentioning the laws that make it nearly impossible to get treatment for mentally ill homeless people. According to a report published by CalMatters, this problem began way back in 1967 with “a law signed by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Aimed at safeguarding the civil rights of one of society’s most vulnerable populations, the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act put an end to the inappropriate and often indefinite institutionalization of people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.”
Ever since, and especially in recent years as the percentage of homeless who suffer from mental illness has increased, attempts to reform the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act have faced tenacious resistance from the ACLU and other homeless advocacy groups. As reported by San Francisco’s public radio station KQED, during 2018 three laws were introduced by California legislators that would “attempt to change conservatorship rules to allow city health workers to help homeless people with substance abuse and mental health problems by legally and temporarily stepping in to force a mentally ill person into treatment.” Only one, SB 1045, became law, and the final version was so watered down that San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed, a liberal Democrat, claimed, “As drafted, SB 1045 would allow us to help fewer than five individuals.” As of May 2021, the official estimates of the number of homeless in San Francisco ran as high as 20,000.
The Obligations of Compassion
Exercising what City Journal’s Christopher Rufo calls “unlimited compassion” for the homeless has been a disaster. What informs homeless policies, especially in California cities governed by progressives, seems to come down to this: homelessness and crime are problems we just have to live with until we’ve achieved equity and social justice for all.
The new breed of Democratic prosecutors who embrace this theory—including George Gascón in Los Angeles County and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco—are part of the problem, not the solution. They have placed a highly selective compassion before common sense.
It is true that Americans need to figure out how to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated. But the obligations of common-sense compassion require policymakers to accept unpleasant realities: When you downgrade crimes you encourage more crime. When you decriminalize possession and personal use of hard drugs, you encourage more drug addiction. When you provide benefits and services to homeless people, you encourage more homelessness.
These realities don’t mean we shouldn’t have compassion for people who are homeless or who are coping with drug addiction, or even for those who have turned to a life of crime. But creating incentives for people to be homeless, or drug addicts, or criminals is a recipe for a failed state.
A return to broken windows policing, in the broadest sense of that term, would have a deterrent effect. The crime and drug use and homelessness that remained would be manageable, especially if the power of the Homeless Industrial Complex is broken. Instead of building half-million-dollar apartments in the most expensive parts of our cities, officials could construct supervised tent encampments in more affordable areas.
Compassion has become so corrupted by progressives and the special interests who benefit from disorder and misery that the policies enacted in its name have made the problem worse. How is it compassionate when supposedly compassionate policies lead to more victims: more homeless, more drug addicts, more criminals?
Compassion, properly tempered with common sense, and properly balanced with the other fundamental moral values, may seem harsh, but the results are what matter, not the rhetoric.
Paul Webster, who until 2020 operated a privately funded homeless shelter in San Diego, has described how there are two ways to treat the homeless, the “transformation model” and the “containment model.” The transformation model works to identify homeless individuals who are able to transition back to self-sufficiency and gives them the training and services to accomplish that. The containment model emphasizes getting shelter for the homeless before offering additional services.
Webster’s organization, Solutions for Change, requires no drug use and work; they have roommate restrictions, partying restrictions, and they do drug testing. This means they can’t accept federal funds and they also aren’t eligible for state funds because of the “housing first” rule, meaning that housing has to be provided before providing any other solutions to homelessness. After a bitter fight with federal authorities seeking to enforce the “housing first” doctrine, the organization was forced to abandon drug testing in some of its locations, against the wishes of the residents.
This is lunacy. According to Webster, there are three types of homeless. About 15 percent are “cannots” who are mentally ill or disabled. Another 40 percent or so are the “have nots”—people who could succeed if they were trained to acquire new skills and had access to services. The have-nots are often not counted; they live doubled up in homes, with friends, in cars. Many of them are single mothers who want to avoid living on the street. The remaining roughly 45 percent, and easily the majority of the “unsheltered” homeless, are the “will nots” who do not want to change. Most of these are drug addicts or alcoholics. They’re the most problematic of the three.
The will-nots know they have safe havens on the street, where they can get drugs cheaply and readily. The will-nots become very sophisticated at getting things for nothing—the government doesn’t make a distinction between the unwilling and the unable—as a result the unwilling will always have the ability to crowd out the unable.
Because of laws aimed at helping the homeless (the Federal Hearth Act) or at criminal justice reform (California’s Proposition 47 and AB 953), the will-nots generally receive the bulk of government services, despite the fact that their treatment is invariably more expensive, and the likelihood they will ever change is small. Left behind are the cannots and the have-nots. Also left behind, at least when it comes to funding, are organizations that work on permanent transformation, instead of mere containment.
To state the obvious, all of this must change. Here are some ways to make that happen.
Solutions to America’s Homeless Crisis
Quit blaming homelessness on prejudice and privilege. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans make up 13 percent of the general population, but more than 40 percent of the homeless population. Similarly, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and people who identify as two or more races make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population. Clearly, minority communities are disproportionately represented among the homeless.
While these statistics are probably accurate, they are used to reinforce the liberal catechism that finds all disparities between minorities and whites to be the result of white racism. Accepting this catechism results in policies that are ineffective, expensive, and divisive. Rather than granting preferences and entitlements to people based on their alleged status as victims of racism, it would be far more productive to identify the more likely cause of individual criminality, addiction, and unemployability, which is the parental status of the homes they grew up in.
For example, 57 percent of black children in 2014 were being raised by single mothers, compared to only 18 percent of white children. There is a remarkable degree of correlation between the proportions of homeless by race, and the proportions of single-parent households by race.
It’s easy, and plays well, to attribute minority homelessness to racism. But a growing body of evidence suggests that intact families are the prevailing indicator of individual success in life. Until that evidence is confronted by the communities affected by it, other suggested causes for minorities being disproportionately represented among the homeless lack authenticity.
Untie the hands of law enforcement. The theory of “broken windows,” or “order maintenance” policing argues that“tolerating too much local disorder created a climate in which criminal behavior, including serious crimes, would become more likely, since criminals would sense that public norms and vigilance were weak.” Broken Windows policing, whereby police crack down on low-level crimes, was begun in the 1990s in New York City and—so long as it remained in effect—was credited with greatly reducing crime rates.
At the other extreme is the near lawlessness that prevails today on the streets of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities experiencing a homeless crisis. In California, as described, well-intentioned citizen-approved ballot measures and ill-conceived legislation have tied the hands of law enforcement. Public intoxication, petty crime, and vagrancy are all either decriminalized or have been downgraded to the point where offenders have to be released almost immediately after apprehension.
The consequences of tying the hands of law enforcement are obvious. It is preposterous that criminals, drunks, drug addicts, and insane people are permitted to take over entire sections of cities and neighborhoods, but that’s exactly what’s happened. It is important to stress that while a little over 40 percent of the homeless are so-called “have nots,” these people almost all find shelter, often with friends or family. The remainder, the “cannots” and the “will nots,” are the ones found living on the streets. Virtually all of these “cannots” and “will nots” are either mentally ill, alcoholics, or drug addicts; many of them are criminals.
Measures that tie the hands of police have to be overturned by voters or repealed by the legislature. Police need to be allowed to do their jobs.
Make it easier to commit the mentally ill. It’s worth wondering how anyone can think it is compassionate to allow raving schizophrenics, terrified by their own thoughts, to roam unmedicated on crowded city streets. But that’s what’s been happening in the interests of protecting their human rights. Certainly, it is important to avoid overreach, but at this point laws available to compel the mentally ill into treatment are inadequate. Often the afflicted have family members who have the means to help and are desperate to get their relatives into treatment, but the laws prevent them.
Approximately 15 percent of the homeless are mentally ill; arguably, the alcoholics and drug addicts are also suffering from a form of mental illness. Together these cohorts constitute well over half of all homeless, and nearly all of the unsheltered homeless seen on the streets. Families, caseworkers, and mental health professionals need to be given the legal tools to help these people.
Overturn Jones v. the City of Los Angeles and similar court rulings. Starting in 2006 with the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Jones, the homeless cannot be prohibited from sleeping on the street unless “permanent supportive housing” is available. The impact of these rulings, combined with the other constraints on law enforcement, make it nearly impossible to clear the streets of homeless encampments.
The problem has been exacerbated by subsequent lawsuits to enforce the Jones decision, the cumulative effect of which has defined “permanent supportive housing” in ways that make it more expensive. The practical impact of the Jones case has been to make it financially impossible to ever deliver adequate housing alternatives to the homeless. A major city with the financial wherewithal to pay for a sustained legal battle needs to challenge the Jones decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the objective being a ruling that will permit less elaborate, more cost-effective housing and shelter solutions to be allowable alternatives.
Set limits on costs. In Los Angeles today, temporary shelter (designed to last three years) is being constructed at a cost of just over $50,000 per bed, and “permanent supportive housing” units are being constructed for more than $400,000 each on average. These costs are absurd. Designing solutions that cost less, but offer shelter to 100 percent of the homeless, is vastly preferable to solutions that cost so much that only a fraction of the homeless get assistance.
Low-cost creative solutions exist. Off-the-shelf tents, sheds, prefab “tiny homes,” and prefab homes made from shipping containers are all less costly options. Relocating the homeless to repurposed industrial or retail sites that are already built out and not on premium real estate would cut costs.
Putting shelters in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate on earth not only squanders finite available funds, but when the unused property is government-owned, the chance is lost to sell that property and invest the proceeds in less expensive locations. Somehow, the public needs to pressure politicians to recognize that costs are out of control and act accordingly.
Assert the moral argument for a new approach. Most citizens who live in neighborhoods or commercial centers overrun with homeless people feel justifiable anger at the failure of civic leaders to get the problem under control. But no serious conversation about solutions should fail to acknowledge the fact that the homeless are people who deserve compassion. For every predator, opportunist, or slacker, there are others who have simply lost their way. Who knows what happened during the formative years of an inmate just thrown back onto the streets, or a teenager who just aged out of foster care?
When discussing new policies to manage the problem of homelessness, the importance of compassion can remain first among equals when considered along with other moral virtues; fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. When offering new solutions, practical solutions, solutions that work for everyone affected by homelessness, reformers have to emphasize the moral worth of their ideas. They may have to shout this over the well-orchestrated objections coming from the compassion brigades. But fighting the compassion brigades does not require one to lack compassion.
The culture of normalizing drug use, protecting the rights of the mentally ill to their detriment, insisting on prohibitively expensive accommodations for the homeless—these are all morally flawed arguments. The deterrent value of strictly enforced laws against vagrancy has moral worth, because individuals—specifically, the “will nots”—will not be enabled to more easily choose a life of idle indulgence. Compelling the mentally ill to submit to treatment is a humane policy, not oppression. Similarly, compelling addicts and alcoholics into treatment facilities where they can detox and work productively is often the only way to offer them a chance to recover their dignity and regain control of their lives.
Part of this moral conversation must examine the wisdom of the “housing first” policy of containment that is now a condition of receiving federal funds for homeless programs. Proponents of new approaches to helping the homeless should consider the success of transformational programs, which offer job training, counseling, and sobriety programs in addition to shelter.
When discussing the moral worth of a new approach to combating homelessness, perhaps the most urgent priority is to end the waste and corruption that infest the entire process today. The absurd costs of any sort of construction are exacerbated by the myriad parties to the process, all with their hands out, all of them hiding behind righteous rhetoric. The Homeless Industrial Complex has spawned far too many charlatans and opportunists. They must be exposed and expelled.
In California, a Homeless Industrial Complex has acquired money and power by presiding over a problem that has only gotten worse, year after year. The worse the problem has gotten, the more money and power they have acquired. Creative solutions exist, and only await a critical mass of networked citizens and conscientious policymakers to insist on change.