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


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.