Coming in at $12.3 billion, San Francisco’s latest proposed budget is larger than those of 13 states. Los Angeles’s is similarly hefty: $10.7 billion. Both cities are placing a priority on addressing homelessness: San Francisco plans to spend $100 million more than it did last year on homeless services, bringing its annual expenditure to $405 million. Los Angeles will spend $450 million.
One would hope, then, that these cities had gotten a handle on homelessness, that the piles of money they’ve thrown at the problem had alleviated it (although a more conservative expectation might be that growing budgets are simply signs of a loss of control). Nothing could be farther from the truth.
A series of reports from the last few months show rising levels of homelessness across California’s cities. In June, L.A. County reported a 12 percent rise in the number of people living on the streets and in their vehicles, bringing that population to 59,000. The final versions of “one night” tallies — in which volunteers fan out and count homeless people over a given night — in counties around the Bay Area are even worse. San Francisco saw a 30 percent rise over the past two years. Santa Clara’s levels jumped 31 percent since their last count. Alameda County (containing Oakland and Berkeley) experienced a growth of 43 percent.
The specific numbers deserve to be viewed skeptically; “one night” counts are notoriously inaccurate.But you’d be hard pressed to find a resident in these cities who’d say that the number of people on the street has gone down.
It’s undeniable that homelessness is increasing. Voters regularly list homelessness as a top priority, and politics across the state are dominated by the issue.
As they should be. The scale of the crisis is appalling, a full-blown quality-of-life and public-health disaster. Los Angeles is experiencing an outbreak of typhus, likely started in massive homeless encampments. San Francisco officials handed out 5.8 million free syringes last year — 2 million of which were not collected by sanitation workers or returned to city-designated sites. Mayor London Breed, in an attempt at optimism, pointed out that it’s possible they were recycled at Walgreens or taken out of the city. Maybe so. My money’s on public parks, sidewalks, and beaches.
The crisis is also moral. Stepping around people passed out on the sidewalk, hurrying by panhandlers on every block — it can’t be good for the soul. Yes, giving money indiscriminately often enables destructive behavior. Yes, no one has a right to harass passers-by. But walking through some neighborhoods in these cities is an exercise in hardening your heart.
Both sides can resort to clichés on this issue. Progressives tend to see the problem as mostly economic, advocating a “housing first” policy that prioritizes housing homeless people over services and rehabilitation, blaming gentrification for driving up housing prices. That isn’t entirely wrong. The most expensive cities in the country have some of the largest homeless populations (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York). Rising house prices tend to affect those living lower on the income scale, says Stephen Eide, a housing and homelessness expert for the Manhattan Institute: “The economics of providing housing for people at the bottom [of the] income spectrum [are] just busted. . . . Progressives are absolutely right that if you lose your apartment, you’re really up against it.”
It’s important to remember that the populations most vulnerable to homelessness are also those most vulnerable to the churn of less regulated housing markets — and so state-built public housing needs to remain an option. The recent rise of people living in cars because they cannot afford to pay rent defies easy excuses about drug usage or unwillingness to work.
Yet progressive policy has created housing markets that serve vulnerable people poorly. Burdensome regulations mean that affordable-housing projects take years to complete, rent control suppresses the construction of new stock, and the difficulty of new construction means that developers tend to favor investments in high-margin, lower-risk luxury housing.
And in any case, the “housing first” approach takes an all-too-optimistic view of how to “solve” the problem of homelessness (it will probably never be solved). Many of the people who live on the street are not really capable of holding down a job or maintaining a home: They struggle with serious, untreated mental illness or drug addiction (or both — the two feed into each other). In 2004, San Francisco paid for 6,000 housing units, largely located in single-room-occupancy hotels, for chronically homeless people to live in. Overstretched staff, managerial incompetence, and unstable tenants often result in atrocious conditions inside these units. And their occupants continue to form a large portion of the street population because they are unable to work, panhandling instead.
This is where conservatives often weigh in; promoting moral values and strong civil society is more important than “housing first” policy, in their telling. It’s true that it’s important, but that only takes you so far. While strong culture and values do a good job of keeping people from becoming homeless, they do little to help those who already are. Chronically homeless people are often alienated people: They’ve lost ties to family and community. To put it bluntly, they’ve run out of couches to crash on. There have always been people like this. There always will be.
So the people on the streets need help, and they need to be helped in the right way, which is often expensive. One important policy focus should be on creating “housing ladders,” by which recipients of aid are encouraged to keep moving up to higher levels of housing independence instead of getting stuck in long-term supportive housing (which too often isn’t supportive enough). And nonprofit groups and government programs need to encourage self-sufficiency and be held to account. Government is often the only entity with the money and, crucially, the reach to coordinate the array of services needed to combat a problem that springs from housing shortages, poverty, substance abuse, and mental-health issues at once.
Homelessness crises often acquire their own gravity, sucking in more homeless people from around the region as services proliferate. So the culture of a city matters, too; places with a reputation for leniency towards large encampments and open drug use will become a magnet for homelessness. Eide notes that “it’s hard to be the first homeless person in a city,” but “it’s a lot easier to be the 2,001st homeless person.” Enforcement of public ordinances and “bus ticket home” programs can help to mitigate this problem.
Finally, as my colleague John Hirschauer has written, cities and states need to be willing to commit the mentally ill to hospitals. This is now largely a progressive talking point, in reaction to a too-expansive view of “patient’s rights,” but conservatives have also contributed to the problem. Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act in 1967, which made it extremely difficult to involuntarily commit the mentally ill to mental hospitals, and his deemphasis of funding for mental hospitals as president in 1981 are both significant contributors to modern homelessness. Urban areas are now far too averse to institutionalization, favoring short-term hospital stays. Putting people in a hospital for a few days and then dumping them back onto the street does no one any good. If they have no stable place to stay and no family able and willing to take care of them, the mentally ill often bounce back and forth between a few days in the hospital and stays on the street.
There is no easy remedy for homelessness, because there is no easy remedy for the opioid crisis or housing shortages or chronic poverty or mental illness. There’s certainly no remedy for good weather, which is a huge reason that western cities are such magnets for homelessness. The size of the crisis is due to a series of civic disgraces, a failure of multiple ideologies and policies. Large American cities have rarely been wealthier or more dynamic. They need to be more than that.