Misguided Solutions to State Homeless Problem

Tent of homeless person on 6th Street Bridge with Los Angeles skyline in the background. California, USA. (Photo By: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

Recently, state Senator John Moorlach (R-Orange County) wrote in this space about California’s struggle to solve the problem of homelessness. In his piece “Grappling with California’s Housing Crisis” Moorlach, however, comes dangerously close to accepting the notion that if government throws enough money at a problem like homelessness we can solve it.

Homelessness in California is a grand example of how government largesse may be hurting and not helping. As Moorlach’s Democrat colleague Jim Beall said at last year’s hearing of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing, “more than $10 billion has been spent on the homeless the last few years, yet, the crisis is not over . . .” Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If true, the state’s policy towards the homeless, as articulated by Committee Chairman Beall, is insane.

While it’s likely Democrat Beall would just as soon press on with more spending, I’m surprised Republican Moorlach, who asked good questions at the hearing, didn’t ask something like “$10 billion spent and what do we have to show for it?” Or, “if we’ve spent that kind of money trying to build our way out of the problem – and it’s not working – why haven’t we tried something different?”

California has indeed spent billions of dollars over the years building housing to deal with its chronic and episodic homeless problems and they’re still with us today. In fact, homelessness has gotten worse. The condition in the City of Los Angeles, according to the LA Times, has risen a breathtakingly 75 percent over the past six years. The City of San Francisco is not far behind as almost all urban areas in California have experienced profound increases. Some estimates have homelessness growing in the state by over 65 percent over the past few years.

Past solutions clearly don’t work. Plus, building has its own set of complications:

First, on average, a unit of affordable housing costs nearly $400,000 to build in California – even more in the state’s high-cost areas. Given that situation, the historic level of funding in Proposition 1 ($4 billion) will barely support 10,000 units. Proposition 2, spending half as much as its sister measure, may only build 5,000 units of housing for the homeless mentally ill – that’s barely enough to match the population of living on the street tonight in Sacramento.

Secondly, getting past the legions of activist neighbors who frown on new housing of any kind, will take some doing. A 150-unit project for seniors was just dismissed from a San Francisco neighborhood after opponents spoke up. NIMBYs have just commenced a lawsuit to stop a “smart” development in San Diego. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was recently confronted by a roomful of angry beach residents over the prospect of erecting a new homeless facility nearby. A bill in the state Legislature to promote greater downtown living was defeated after several housing combatants stormed a hearing room to express their outrage.

Lastly, forcing someone into a rental housing situation may not be a solution. When 63 percent of tent-dwellers in Seattle recently refused to leave their current street abodes for the warmth and security of emergency shelter something is wrong. So, simply “housing the homeless” doesn’t work. Moreover, despite some evidence to the contrary, there is little direct correlation between homelessness and the obvious lack of affordable housing – competing data suggests that nexus only exists for a few. By contrast, according to a survey done in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) nearly half of the homeless population suffers from mental illnesses. In addition, the National Coalition for the Homeless tells us that drug addiction is clearly a factor in remaining homeless.  Is it possible we’ve been flying blind all these years? In other words, have we been enacting billion-dollar policies while ignoring the facts? Even if California had the fiscal and political wherewithal to build more permanent housing for the homeless, it won’t solve the problem.

Senator Moorlach deserves praise for co-sponsoring the state legislation that authorized SB 2 and put it on the 2018 ballot. Its assistance – importantly, including services – is, by definition, aimed at caring for homeless individuals with mental illnesses. Against prevailing attitudes, he seems to be admitting that housing isn’t the only problem. “So many of the homeless are on the streets because of substance dependency and mental issues,” Moorlach states.

But then, inexplicably, he falls back on endorsing the failed strategies of the past, saying “In Orange County, we hope to harness existing public and private funds and contributions from governments and foundations” to build more housing. He further applauds fellow Orange County legislators Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) and Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) for authoring AB 448 “which sets up the Orange County Housing Finance Trust to enable local municipalities to plan and construct additional housing for the homeless.”

As compassionate as I know Senator Moorlach is – and his consideration of policies that address the various ills that affect homeless populations is unmatched in Sacramento – he should be consistent in his policy making and associated rhetoric. The homeless problem in California is not one dimensional (housing, only) and Senator Moorlach knows it isn’t. Social scholars Alice Baum and Donald Burnes tell us, instead, homelessness is a disengagement from ordinary society – from family, friends, neighborhood, church and community.

With the right policies coming from Sacramento, we can begin to arrest the social decline and downward spiral of so many fellow Californians. Starting with:

* • Immediately building or rehabilitating temporary, emergency shelters;
* • With teams of volunteers, removing the homeless from street living;
* • Providing regular on-site addiction, mental health and medical services;
* • Facilitating the provision of these services through qualified non-profits;
* • Considering a state policy for “re-institutionalizing” the mentally ill; and
* • Yes, help clear a land-use path for building more housing, of all kinds.

onsultant specializing in housing issues.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily