Policy

L.A.'s Plan To Solve Its Homeless Problem Is a Mess

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More than 2,500 homeless individuals sleep on the streets of the 53-square-block Skid Row area in downtown Los Angeles.

"Skid row is the worst man-made disaster in the United States. There's human waste on the sidewalks. There's all kinds of disease," says Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of Skid Row's Union Rescue Mission, the nation's largest private homeless shelter.

While California's homelessness crisis extends far beyond L.A., the city's predicament is notable for its sheer scale. It has the highest unsheltered homeless population in the country, and more than 1,000 homeless people died on the streets of Los Angeles County last year, according to government figures. The problem is so bad that in 2016, 76 percent of L.A. voters approved a bond referendum to spend more than $1.2 billion in public funds on 10,000 new apartment units for the homeless.

The plan called for completing construction within a decade, but just 1 percent of those apartments will be ready for occupancy by the end of 2019. Now, homeless advocates like Bales are concerned that the city is wasting money on the most expensive possible solution—one that might not work as advertised even if it weren't behind schedule and likely to bust its own budget.

The city's approach to homelessness, known as "housing first," was adopted by municipalities nationwide after Utah reportedly reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent by giving away permanent apartments with no strings attached. But state auditors later attributed those findings to a data collection error. Utahans don't actually know what effect various programs have had on the state's homeless population, which, in any case, is estimated to be two-thirds the size of just Skid Row's.

What's more, building housing for the homeless is considerably more costly and complex in Los Angeles than in Salt Lake City, thanks to local and statewide zoning and environmental regulations that allow labor unions, homeowners, and other parties to bring housing development to a standstill. Advocates are now watching in frustration as such roadblocks drive up the cost of the city's housing first efforts, while cheaper, faster solutions congeal on the back burner.

L.A. initially estimated the permanent units would have a median cost of $350,000 apiece—not cheap to begin with. Three years later, the estimated cost has increased to more than $500,000 per unit, with some units approaching $700,000. (The median price of a condo in Los Angeles was $581,000 as of this writing.)

"We cannot spend $600,000 per person per unit and ever get it done," says Bales. "We've got to think innovatively or we're going to have a bigger disaster on our hands."

Union Rescue Mission just opened what's called a Sprung structure—a relatively inexpensive but sturdy and weather-resistant tent with 120 beds. Bales wants the city to invest more in Sprung structures and other cheap, easily constructed solutions like mobile homes, container homes, or even 3D-printed houses (see page 5). Under increasing pressure in recent months, the city has erected a few of its own Sprung structures to address the crisis, but Bales believes it's still not nearly enough.

"It's ridiculous," he says. "I mean, who would want to leave 44,000 people on the streets to die while you stick with your very expensive plan to help a few?"

Click here for a video version of this story.

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  2. I suspect that, as with so many other government programs, LA’s plan to solve its homelessness problem is a mess because it’s not actually a plan but merely a set of goals. Personally, I have a plan to win the lottery and buy my own private island, let’s see if LA’s plan works out as well as mine.

    1. May the odds ever be in your favor – – –

    2. the “plan” is to employ hundreds if not thousands of homelessness professionals. San Francisco does the same. The plan is working great.

      1. Yep, build a support industry.

        NYC does the same. A lot of money being made off the problem.

  3. I wonder how many of LA’s homeless folks are from other states? In other words the problem is a national one and California is picking up the slack of the slacker states.

    1. Not as many as you think. Mountains, rivers, and desserts are hard things to cross when you have no money or transportation. Look how hard it is for the illegal Latinos. And the illegal Latinos are far more motivated than drugged out or mental Americans.

      Most of Californias homeless problems are its own or mexicos that they shipped across the border. And Cali would have more money for the homeless if they weren’t dropping billions on illegals as well.

        1. I dunno. If you stop for dessert frequently enough, it’ll definitely slow you down.

      1. Lots of places dump their homeless on California.

        A dedicated bum can raise a few hundred bucks begging and get their ass to CA on a greyhound.

        1. And I don’t know if this is still common practice, but 20-25 years ago when the Las Vegas police department would pick up indigents, they would simply put them on a plane to LA. My father-in-law used to work at a CareUnit where that was a pretty good percentage of their intake.

      2. Those that are Mexican were born here. The illegal aliens aren’t the homeless. They’re hard working, harder than pink soft native anglos. I would hire a hundred of them over one whiny white L.A. college kid.

        Most homeless have a non-economic problem in their life. Drug abuse, mental illness, alcoholism. There is temporary homelessness due to economic reasons, but the permanent homeless with their permanent sidewalk encampments have other problems than just being laid off due to Trump (or whatever the meme is).

      3. New York was recently caught exporting its homeless population. Free bus ticket anywhere. Some places even give them free airline tickets to Hawaii (which has a huge homeless population).

      4. Some places just buy bus tickets for their homeless. $200 to Greyhound and making it LA’s problem is a lot cheaper than figuring it out yourself.

        Part of it is California’s fault as well, if you go on an advertising campaign about how much you care about the homeless and how much you’re going to do for them, you shouldn’t be surprised when more of them show up.

        1. No kidding Fat if LA is going to start free housing for life I just may retire there. $500k for a house is rediculuse, are they installing gold toilets or is someone making a heck of a profit

        2. if you go on an advertising campaign about how much you care about the homeless and how much you’re going to do for them, you shouldn’t be surprised when more of them show up.

          Especially when you factor in that at no point over the course of the year does the temperature drop below 50F.

      5. How come illegal immigrants don’t have a problem finding homes?

    2. When welfare entitlements are generous, alternatives become cheaper by comparison, thus its blue states which are buying bus tickets and sending their homeless to live in red states, not the other way around.

      When San Francisco, for example, reports on the number of people “exiting” homelessness, it includes the tally of people who are put on a bus and relocated elsewhere in the country. It turns out that almost half of the 7,000 homeless people San Francisco claims to have helped lift out of homelessness in the period of 2013-16 were simply given one-way tickets out of the city.

      1. Very few chronic homeless ever get “lifted out” of homeless. Once it is a lifestyle it tends to stick.

        Some small percentage of homeless are temporarily there, usually families down on their luck, and quickly move on after availing themselves of help from foodbanks and the like.

        True, chronic homeless are a mix of folks who are inveterate. They have extreme mental issues, extreme drug issues, or are extremely anti-social, or a mix of those. They are not going to be “lifted out” of homelessness. It’s the sad truth.

        1. It’s not the truth at all actually. It is just the perpetual repeat of the Victorian-era moralism that ‘those people are just not respectable middle-class and they don’t even aspire to the same things respectable people aspire too’. The same attitude that led to eugenics, to tearing down ‘boarding houses’ (including the ‘luxury residential hotels’ catering to wealthy bohemian/nonconformist types), and to the creation of all sorts of govt subsidies for the ‘proper’ sort of respectable people (including eliminating common-law marriage and its replacement by civil law marriage with subsidies)

          Probably 1/3 of homeless have serious mental/addiction issues (or at least issues that preceded their homelessness and are not aggravated by that homelessness). Serious enough issues that they will never get on some fast-track career to ‘respectability’. And yes – they are also the vast majority of the chronically and unsheltered homeless. But the vast majority of them are also harmless to others – and have VERY LOW housing requirements. A tent can suffice for them. But that is precisely the option that is unacceptable to YOU and your ilk. YOU are the one who wants everyone in sight to aspire to keeping up with the Jones’ – and the mere existence of anyone who doesn’t – within your eyesight – is what is truly objectionable

          1. “…But that is precisely the option that is unacceptable to YOU and your ilk. YOU are the one who wants everyone in sight to aspire to keeping up with the Jones’ – and the mere existence of anyone who doesn’t – within your eyesight – is what is truly objectionable”

            YOU.
            Are
            Full.
            Of.
            Shit.

          2. It is just the perpetual repeat of the Victorian-era moralism that ‘those people are just not respectable middle-class and they don’t even aspire to the same things respectable people aspire too’.

            * * *

            Probably 1/3 of homeless have serious mental/addiction issues (or at least issues that preceded their homelessness and are not aggravated by that homelessness). Serious enough issues that they will never get on some fast-track career to ‘respectability’. And yes – they are also the vast majority of the chronically and unsheltered homeless. But the vast majority of them are also harmless to others – and have VERY LOW housing requirements. A tent can suffice for them.

            So . . . which is it? Or are you saying you agree with the “Victorian-era moralism” you sound like you’re condeming?

          3. 1/3? You know nothing.

            I also didn’t say a word about tents, or what I think should be done.

            Nor did I mention the Joneses. You sound like you’re arguing with yourself.

      2. I do know that S.F. and L.A. are meccas for the homeless in other cities. I used to wonder why the homeless in S.F. didn’t just get out of the most expensive city in the country. Why not move to, say, a rural town, where a minimum wage broom pushing job is livable? Then I realized that the homeless are migrating to S.F. where the panhandling is much better.

        My home town was once the poorest town in the state. We have no homeless. They migrate to Fresno, and then from Fresno to San Fransisco. It’s a clear pattern. They go to where the services and panhandling opportunities are. From the town to the city to the big city.

        1. From the town to the city to the big city.

          And then, ultimately, Berkeley.

      3. To be fair to San Francisco, it’s possible to be the owner of a median home in Kansas on an income that wouldn’t even be enough for someone to sleep on the street in S.F.

        The “Progressive” pols here in Cali seem fairly certian that at some point they’ll be able to aftificially inflate the cost of living enough to eliminate poverty. What’s surprising is that the legislature hasn’t chosen to address climate change with a bill that prohibits sea level from rising on the state’s coastline and just called it “dealt with”.

    3. They survey this every year.

      65% of LA homeless have been in LA County for more than 20 years. 10% one year or less

      75% lived in LA County before becoming homeless. 13% came in from out-of-state.

      There has always been some transience among what are now the chronically homeless. Every city in the US used to have cheap places where those folks lived – SRO’s, boarding houses, etc. Skid Rows everywhere. So they’d wander around for seasonal labor – and then hunker down for the winter in a place where they had more connections.

      That entire rung of housing – and the next couple of rungs (virtually everything sized for single adults) – has almost completely disappeared throughout the US. Torn down and eliminated as part of housing inflation and subsidies for other sorts of housing. So yes – there are some people who are chronically homeless now who will choose to live in better weather where they won’t die. But LA has also massively reduced that sort of housing – so people who lose their job/etc, quickly fall a few housing rungs now. And it’s that local housing loss that is LA’s main source of homelessness

      1. This is a survey of self-reported responses from drug addicts and crazy people right?

        1. He’s talking about the homeless in L.A., not the Reason commentariat.

      2. I’ve noticed and become a victim of that problem. I couldn’t afford even the Bronx any more, so I moved to northwest New Jersey, but the only plan that works is to shack up with a friend. Fortunately I managed to start with a FOAF who’d been living with another friend of mine but needed to be closer to his doctors; then when he died someone found online who needed temporary housing (moving to attend school elsewhere after a little over half a year); and now a friend I’ve known since 1988 who finally had a mutual falling out with the lady friend (also a friend of mine) he’d been living with for 20 years in several locations all over NJ.

        If you don’t have friends nearby, it looks very daunting for a single guy — or lady, I suppose.

        This is public policy, isn’t it? Single people are seen subtly as undesirable to any community, right? People don’t want to live next door to them? Landlords don’t trust them, do they? Couples are viewed as more stable tenants?

        1. Agree. It is public policy and has been for a long long time. Subsidize the ‘proper’ sort of social/family structure and get rid of the ‘improper’ sort. And their housing is the easy target for that.

          It has also morphed into our basic underlying economic/monetary system. The vast majority of credit (money) creation is for existing houses not for new constructions. Because that new money is not actually financing anything new, it is merely creating monetary inflation. Which is quite deliberately not recorded as ‘inflation’ in our statistical data. And over time that inflation gradually eliminates ‘housing viability’ of ‘residential group-units’ from the bottom-up. The poor/unskilled, the young, the mobile, single adults, the single-earner family. Even ‘sprawl’/suburbanization is (now at least) IMO more a function of families trying to deal with policy-created land/housing inflation than it is some long-term underlying now-revealed consumer desire for long commutes from an isolated McMansion. It may have started as a real desire for ‘small-town’ living. But nothing ‘small-town’ really gets created there. They remain mere bedroom communities for the most part.

          1. But sprawl can be created only by new construction, so there’s some additional base for the extra debt, isn’t there?

            Still, I agree that the preference for such housing has been exaggerated. Yes, people can live that way now. That doesn’t mean so many of them want to.

            Housing bubbles have also scared people into buying earlier than they wanted to. Friends seeing prices going up faster than inflation told me they’d better buy now (circa 1985), far out there, while they could still afford it, if they could even get in there at all. Some people in that position were bound to wind up upside-down.

            1. Initially – yes. But that mortgage debt is rarely paid down now as a separate primary claim on that new-build.

              It is refinanced when interest rates drop – thus leading to the ability to leverage into more extended credit for that original owner. And it is a rare person who doesn’t ‘cash out’ a bit. After all – house prices never drop and if they do well the whole point of govt is to bail us out (or lower interest rates so we can cash out a bit more) when that happens.

              When the new-build house is sold to a second owner, the old mortgage is paid off and is replaced by an entirely new and larger primary claim. That higher new mortgage is inevitably going to try to maximize depreciation (which has generally been tax-deductible) – so massive pressure is put on assessors to keep the land price stable and raise the property value instead. So the existing property now has more depreciable value than it did one owner before.

              In essence, the value of that construction keeps being recorded as going up merely through a change of ownership and the magical extension of more credit. But that is statistically treated as the creation of wealth not the creation of inflation. It’s a modern form of rentiership where interest charges replace ‘rent’ in the aggregate statistics (NIPA).

              So that, in the aggregate, rent goes down and seems to actually disappear in the US – while mortgage interest replaces it entirely and more – and true ‘homeownership’ (people who actually own their home free and clear) is actually lower now than it was 100 years ago (in most places). Just looking at CA. It looks like 22% of homeowners in CA own their homes free and clear now (according to zillow). In 1900, 46% of CA were ‘homeowners’ – which back then really did mean free and clear cuz back then mortgages were mostly on farms and mostly only 2-3 year loans. Those who aren’t free-and-clear – are in fact paying rent to the bank in the form of mortgage interest

              And I agree that just because housing construction is creating bigger houses does not actually indicate demand for actual housing is for much bigger housing. The construction is massively distorted by both that housing inflation and the demand for ‘investment’/tax games. Both of those skew construction to be much more high-income oriented – and those who simply don’t want/need/afford are forced into paying more anyway because the older/smaller houses get priced up in lockstep with the new – and/or are eliminated entirely from the housing stock.

      3. Valid point that housing no longer exist and I believe taking in borders is now illegal in many places and its also to often dangerous to take in borders. that said California has now made it a law that if you take in a homeless person you no longer have to go thru a 6 month legal process to have them removed.

      4. Every city in the US used to have cheap places where those folks lived – SRO’s, boarding houses, etc.

        This is true. One thing I’ve noticed nearly everyone around Oakland-Berkeley missing was the simultaneity of the disappearance of the last residency hotels from downtown Oakland during Jerry Brown’s tenure as mayor and the rising homeless population.

        The idea was to “clean up” Downtown.

        Same thing when SF cleaned up the SOMA neighborhood for the new high-end residential towers. A recent survey found that a very large percentage of the SF homeless have been there their whole lives – they just used to live in abandoned properties and residency hotels in SOMA.

      5. That’s not a good sign for a county that’s home to about 3% of the U.S. populace, but almost 25% of the country’s homeless population.

        There was plenty of homelessness in L.A. before the city, county, and state went to a strictly one-party government (the CA GOP is almost vestigial outside of local governments in some rural parts of the state as well as possibly OC and San Diego), but this seems like a sign that something that’s been ongoing under that one-party rule is contributing to the creation of homelessness at a rate that very few other places can match.

  4. “We cannot spend $600,000 per person per unit and ever get it done,” says Bales.

    This is the opposite of their attitude to “light rail” and bike paths. When a 15 mile section of light rail costs $7 billion, they literally don’t give a shit.

    1. “I mean, who would want to leave 44,000 people on the streets to die while you stick with your very expensive plan to help a few?”

      …..And on an unrelated note, they’d also like to run your healthcare.

    2. They literally don’t give a shit.

      But if that bike path turns out to be a good place to pitch a tent, they’ll end up with plenty of it. :/

    3. How much will a $600K or even a $300K unit be worth after a year of being occupied by an individual with addiction/mental issues?

      1. You’ll have to pay someone to take it over and tear it down.

    4. 76 percent of L.A. voters approved a bond referendum to spend more than $1.2 billion in public funds on 10,000 new apartment units for the homeles

      Whereas, $120k per apartment, before the inevitable cost overruns, mismanagement, etc., if perfectly reasonable.

    5. Bales isn’t affiliated with the CA government.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the only regret any official in L.A. city/county or in the State gov’t would have about spending $600k/person to provide housing would be that they couldn’t have found a way to spend $750k instead.

      As far as I can tell, the only measure of “success” that matters to most of my “progressive” friends is the amount of $$$ that can be proven to have been spent on anything that can be claimed to be aimed at a problem. Results aren’t relevant in the evaluation, which is why it doesn’t really matter whether or not the HSR ever moves a single passenger between any two points, so long as the state doesn’t have to repay the $3.5Billion (or so) in federal funding that was given for them to waste by the 2009 “stimulus” package.

  5. Big deal, Li’s Angeles isn’t real life.

    1. I don’t know who the fuck Li’s Angels are.

      1. First name Char, eh?

        1. Do you envision Li as part of the band, or silent partner to 2 or 3 performing chicks?

  6. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I mean, who would want to leave 44,000 people on the streets to die while you stick with your very expensive plan to help a few?”

    The LA politician whose brother/cousin/uncle owns a construction company that will get the contract of course.

    This guy is either a total innocent, or he doesn’t understand gov spending incentives.

    1. If you want to understand any problem in America, you need to focus on who profits from that problem, not who suffers from the problem.

      1. Nobody really profits from the existence of the homeless in L.A.

        The State/County governments might get more property tax revenue when they can drive up property values by creating an artificial housing shortage, and the need for higher individual/family income to afford growing rents (as well as all the other inflated prices that make up the co drives up tax reciepts in a system where incomes that are well into the top “regular” marginal rate are insufficient to afford a median 1-BR apartment in the cities where 60-70% of the state’s population live.

        I’m not sure if “profit” is the right word for it, but the belief that all of the changes to the mental health system can be laid on the Reagan administration (for having complied with a law that was signed in October of 1963 by John Kennedy) could be a factor in preventing any kind of meaningful change to the federal law which largely prohibits (or at least vastly increases the complexity) any state/local government from even attempting to provide the kind of mental/addiction treatment services that are needed by a huge percentage of the chronic/permanent homeless population, especially in places like Los Angeles and S.F.

        Also, as much as I do have reservations about criminalizing possession/use of a lot of the drugs that many seem to be getting imprisoned over, I’ve heard too many cases of now sober addicts saying that the threat of jail/prison was the thing that finally motivated them to give rehab a serious shot (by most accounts from those with direct experience with addiction treatment, that is one of the biggest factors contributing to treatment being successful) and can’t help but suspect that there’s a pragmatic benefit to such imprisonment being “on the table” with meaningful treatment being offered as an alternative for addicts/users.

    2. The LA politician whose brother/cousin/uncle owns a construction company that will get the contract of course.

      Close. The actual construction is usually watched way too closely for that type of tomfoolery.

      The politician’s brother/cousin/uncle will be the Architect/Fundraising Consultant/Environmental Impact Report provider.

  7. Just buy plane tickets to Hawaii.

  8. L.A. doesn’t want to solve it’s homeless problem. Perhaps it’s because they think a homeless surge will embarrass the current administration. Perhaps they think being homeless is the top rank of the SJW Identiarian hiearchy and consider it unwoke to tell them to shuffle along. Or maybe it’s their plan to get federal tax moneys. But in any case, they do NOT want to solve their homeless problem.

    Case in point: Remember a couple of years ago when L.A. was busy arresting food trucks? Banning bacon dogs? Those were legit businesses operated by legit entrepreneurs. Today the homeless have started setting up “cafes” with a hibachis (and sometimes full barrel grills) and a set of fold up chairs. The city cops just walk past them. Food truck get arrested, burning barrel gets ignored. Crazy.

    They’re busy STOPPING microhousing projects, STOPPING lower cost multi-unit construction. The homeless problem is hitting them in tax revenues as property owner bail out of the city and the state, but the council members don’t care. As individuals they got their slice of the pie, they’ll be out of office when the whole thing collapses. It’s the lower class stuck in the city that will collapse into a second Detroit within the decade.

    1. Progressives don’t solve problems, they make existing ones worse/more expensive and then create more.

      1. By their very nature, they need those problems to exist. If no problems can be found, no progress can be made and the Progressive has no cause.

        They must always have a crisis to work on, their existence depends on it.

    2. A homeless surge in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other left-elite enclaves wouldn’t embarrass the Trump Administration. On the contrary, it would be proof that his policies are working.

    3. I bet it’s more tickets than arrests of the food truck operators. They want those revenues. The homeless grill they can’t dun for fines.

      “I’m homeless and I vote!” Well, they probably aren’t passing out those signs, but don’t think they don’t at least want them counted for Congressional apportionment, which goes by population, not citizenship or eligibility to vote. And yet, there probably are local and even state elected office holders who count on the homeless vote to help anchor their sinecure.

  9. “Skid row is the worst man-made disaster in the United States.”

    Worse than *Congress*?

  10. The problem is the 9th Circuit which prohibited the city from evicting the homeless off of public property.

  11. Seems maybe most of the problem is the conflating of various other problems as “homelessness”. People wandering around the streets or in tents could be the result of several distinct things:
    craziness
    poverty
    accident (fires, etc.)
    market failure
    lifestyle choice
    …and they’re probably very different in distribution between Utah and California, and call for different solutions. Lifestyle choice is something that doesn’t need to be solved, just needs its boundaries policed. Market failure is a result of public policies that distort the market or don’t let it clear. Accident needs to be dealt with case by case, not by a program. Poverty…heck, what don’t we discuss here that affects wealth and poverty some way or other? And craziness needs to be dealt with by something other than housing, because you can try to install a brain damaged person in a home and they’ll continue to wander the streets, confused; they’re not like furniture or appliances.

  12. They gave up too early on that LA/SF bullet train. LA could have sent the bums north and SF could have returned them.

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