Bureaucracy, Funding No Cure for Homeless Problem

At the minimum, county officials should look at government rules that exacerbate the suffering.


My office is located in a part of downtown Sacramento that the Sacramento Bee recently referred to as a "blighted and foreboding stretch of K Street." It's not that the buildings are so decrepit. In fact, with the city's new arena, there's a concentrated building boom going on around these parts. The problem is it is overrun with poor and bedraggled people sleeping in doorways and carting around their sacks of belongings.

It's really depressing, and at times dangerous. Not long ago, I absent-mindedly wandered into the middle of a fight while staring at my cell phone. A guy covered in heavy chains—like a scene from "Beetlejuice"—recently limped down the street yelling at his demons. The neighborhood is reminiscent of an open-air insane asylum. People beg. They scream. Some are desperately hungry.

This obviously is a big problem in most urban areas, which have developed decent-sized budgets to deal with it. In Orange County, California, for instance, the Santa Ana Civic Center is ground zero for the homeless population. Given the location of county offices, officials can't avert their eyes from the problem. But their approach is emblematic of governments everywhere as they remain mired in a bureaucratic worldview that is unlikely to do more than chip away at the edges of this intractable problem.

The county of Orange recently hired a homeless czar, Susan Price. She just released "An Assessment of Homeless Services in Orange County," which offers a roadmap of current services. There's nothing particularly wrong with its assessment or recommendations, as it calls for a more collective, regional approach to the problem. But there's nothing particularly right about it, either.

The report calls for hiring a manager to "enhance" the Continuum of Care system. It wants to "improve regional coordination" by formalizing "protocols" for responding to homeless encampments. It wants to develop a "systemic navigation of services by diversifying the portfolio of services" and calls for more funding for shelters and housing assistance. It's self-congratulatory at times.

Homeless activists focused on the funding part of it. "A recent report by the ACLU estimates that it would take $13 million a year to permanently house the chronically homeless population, and a total of $55 million a year to house the entire homeless population," according to a report in The Voice of OC.

Over the years, I've heard myriad boasts from government agencies that if they only had x more dollars, they could eliminate some long-running problem. The extra money ends up building bureaucracies and boosting salaries for those who administer the programs. Without irony, the assessment report refers to Orange County's "broad-based working group that was charged with developing the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness."

The plan started in 2008 and was adopted in 2010. It's now 2016. Who believes the county is 60 percent along in its goal to "end homelessness"? Many say the problem is worse than ever. Sure, money would always help—but there will always be a demand for more services than can ever be provided. Cities that have been most generous toward the homeless—think San Francisco—have become magnets for homeless populations.

There are a variety of unfixable pathologies that lead some people to become homeless, including mental illness, drug addiction and domestic abuse. Many non-profit agencies have had the most success in dealing with these matters. But there will be homeless people as long as there are people. It's silly to talk about ending homelessness. It's useful to better coordinate governmental services, but it's more sensible to think creatively.

Price touts the idea of turning old motels into shelters for homeless people and at projects that use shipping containers to house people. Ironically, some Orange County cities have over the years chased poor people out of old motels by passing laws that limit occupancy to 30 days. One of the most obvious fixes costs nothing: repealing land-use rules and regulations that make it tough to accommodate homeless and poor people. At the minimum, county officials should look at government rules that exacerbate the suffering.

Some cities are creating tiny-house villages in old industrial areas where people pay small amounts of rent—but have a roof over their head and a community bathroom and kitchen to take care of life's basic functions. (Sadly, other cities are cracking down on them.) Are there more places to consider this idea?

Overall, the county's—and state's—high cost of housing makes it particularly hard for people at the bottom. With developable land so expensive, homes are costly to build and buy. Rents are soaring. High housing costs trickle down the entire housing ladder, making it cost-prohibitive to create low-rent facilities that could keep people off the streets. In other words, we need to think more broadly about housing markets and regulations.

The issue is not about shooing people away so we don't have to see them. It's about creating some humane policies. It's good that Orange County and other localities are making homelessness a priority, but not much will change until they break out of the box of bureaucratic thinking.

NEXT: 'We Have Two Parties Right Now That Have Abandoned All Pretenses at Realism About Our $20 Trillion National Debt and About Our Entitlements'

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  1. The more money you give to house crazy people, the more crazy people will need housing. Lower the minwage so these people can work. If they have spending money then believe me someone will give them a bed in return for it.

    Jill Stein approves this message.

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  4. This is relatively easy problem to solve but difficult to sell. Change the structure of property taxes so that it is more Georgist. The tax on land/location should be high. A parking lot right next to a high-rise has most of the same municipal infrastructure – the same property rights – and the same cronyism re zoning. A tax on that land does not distort the market (land ain’t going away) – but when the tax is too low then the land itself is the source of all speculation/inflation that occurs with manipulated interest rates. Taxes on structures should be zero or near because those are pure distortions of the capital/labor to build/maintain and that add value via housing/jobs/etc.

    But Americans have long had a entitlement mentality when it comes to real estate speculation and we don’t even mind when it corrupts everything else. So our tax system and depreciation and leverage and everything reinforces that.

    Go to a Georgist system – and housing would quickly develop. Even NYC has nearly 50% of its land area devoted to uses that are off the tax rolls and thus very suboptimal because of that. I’m not talking buildings. 50+% taken up by streets, parks and vacant land. Plus another 23% that is low-density (1/2 family) residential.


    1. OR…stop taxing property.

    2. Or, or – we could change to an alloidal title, end property taxes and stop telling the landowner how to use their property.

      But the cause of the homelessness problem isn’t property taxes, it’s mental illness.

      1. Except that 75% of the homeless are NOT chronic (mental/drug problems) homeless. Most homeless don’t devolve all the way to ‘the street’ and there are more homeless children than homeless mental. The biggest cause of homelessness is people having to spend 40-50% of income on rent. About 1/3 of renters (roughly 28 million vs the current 750k who are homeless on any given night) are paying 40%+. Once that happens, there is no possible nest egg so any job/marriage/etc loss results in the threat of ‘the street’ as end-game. And nothing is as close to a one-way ratchet down to permanent poverty/death as homelessness. When the next recession hits, the human cost of the current housing bubble will explode. And there will be no reason at all for the homeless to remain peaceful and non-violent.

        But hey – as long as homeowners get their tax cronyism and can get the state to hassle the homeless for existing, all’s right with the world. And BTW – alloidal title means no court to resolve property disputes – or peaceful title either.

        1. You of course, have citations for all those fantastic numbers?

          1. It’s out there if you google. There’s a Jan homeless ‘census’ and various homeless/domestic violence/food bank groups gather info on the at-risk groups.

            1. This site says 15% a chronically homeless and there are 564k homeless on any given night.
              National Alliance to End…
              Looks like a major reason for chronic homelessness is mental issues.

              It does mention that some people spend 50% of their income on rent and the recommended amount is 30% of income.

              Not to be too Libertarian here, but they still have 50% of their income to spend. They would have more if taxes were lower for stuff they buy and they could always move to cheaper locations than cities. I assume they live in cities because cities are so expensive compared to rural areas for housing.

  5. I think Mr. Greenhut hit the high points. Homelessness is never going away. Unfortunately the majority of the homeless are mentally ill. They are dysfunctional.

    Bureaucrats and activists turning themselves into tiger butter and the tax payers into paupers is more about helping the bureaucrats.

    1. Government spends tax money to promote government first. Always has, always will.

  6. The solutions to homelessness are obvious. We just have to implement a living wage of $20 per hour so that homeless people can afford to support their families of four. Then we have to put rent control in place to stop landlords from exploiting vulnerable tenants.


    1. If we don’t implement Akira’s common-sense, reasonable solutions, why, top-hatted slumlords will evict families left and right!

  7. homeless czar

    They found another Romanov?

    1. +1 “I do not rule Russia; ten thousand vagrants do.”

  8. The county of Orange recently hired a homeless czar, Susan Price.

    “My only office is the park!”

  9. At the fundamental level, relief to homelessness problems will always have a directly proportional relationship with restrictive zoning regulations and structure codes.

  10. Bring back a psych hospital per state and have street group sessions.

    Jail is no place for mentally ill people and that is where they end up.

    Either that or equip them with military weapons and send the mentally unstable to fight ISIS.

  11. I actually work with multiple homeless programs. Lack of money is a significant problem. Not everyone has access to the money that large cities and counties do. However, the bigger problem is that the federal government won’t let you hold clients accountable. You can’t make them do anything. You have to give them money to be “rapidly re-housed,” meaning you quickly take them off the street and put them in rental housing, but you can’t make them endure any sort of case management, job training, financial skills education, or anything else that would actually keep them from falling back into homelessness. And then you have to manipulate your numbers so that it looks like that person succeeded or you won’t get as much money the next year. And the government keeps changing its definition of homeless, narrowing it each year so that the homeless rate drops simply because who can be homeless is a shrinking portion of the population. And, finally, the federal government changes its focus area frequently declaring that they have solved one problem and are moving on to another so there’s no time to really solve a problem. And states follow the direction of the federal government so that money does the same thing. The most effective organizations are the ones that don’t take government money and do their own thing and hold people accountable.

    1. “And then you have to manipulate your numbers so that it looks like that person succeeded or you won’t get as much money the next year.”
      Hmm…. sounds like fraud to obtain federal funding.

      I have always said that all the progressives out there should give 75%+ of their savings to charities that help people. Walk the talk, as they say. According to Progressive dogma, we all have to give taxpayer money to “fix” this problem even though it never gets fixed.

      1. Hell, fraud to obtain funding is only fair….after all the State committed fraud to get its paws on that money in the first place…

        1. You mean extortion? That is obtaining money through force and/or threats.

          Fraud is when someone takes property under deceitful means. We all know the government is and how it takes money from you. Some even give more than they have to.

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