Homelessness Isn't an Unfixable Problem

Start by looking at the government policies that have made it worse.


California is home to nearly one-third of the nation's homeless population and the problem—by almost everyone's account—continues to worsen. The statistics tell part of the story: More than 170,000 people sleep in tents in public parks, under freeway bridges and on sidewalks in our cities and suburbs. The state has spent $20 billion to address the problem in five years.

The anecdotes are even more telling, given that the common, appalling street scenes cause businesses to shutter and discourage people from visiting downtowns or using public transit. I was chatting on my cellphone on a Sacramento street when a homeless man started screaming in my face. It doesn't take many incidents like that to harden our attitudes.

Liberal Democrats, who typically run big-city governments, have understandably been reluctant to embrace enforcement-centric policies. That's changing as scared and angry residents speak out. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced efforts to clear out 1,200 homeless encampments. Officials in San Francisco even unleashed the National Guard to tamp down open-air drug markets.

The governor's office said the effort is "concentrated in or near the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods of the city." Those neighborhoods are Ground Zero for homeless encampments, which should surprise no one. Sprawling tent cities have become like the Wild West—breeding grounds for illicit drug use, retail theft, and sex crimes.

Meanwhile, California's official "Housing First" policy is failing. As a fact sheet on the Housing and Community Development website explains, "anyone experiencing homelessness should be connected to a permanent home as quickly as possible, and programs should remove barriers to accessing the housing, like requirements for sobriety or absence of criminal history."

That approach is an outgrowth of progressive ideology. Housing First views homelessness primarily as a housing problem, thus downplaying the addiction and mental-health issues that are at the root of the crisis. Placing mentally ill people and those with substance-abuse problems unsupervised in housing units doesn't provide them with the help they need. As one homeless expert told me, it mainly results in them dying alone in a room.

Even if Housing First worked, the state can't afford to build—and certainly not quickly—the number of units needed. We've seen absurd news stories about affordable housing projects costing more than $1 million per apartment. Thanks to the usual governmental issues (poor management, environmental rules, union featherbedding), cities can't even build a public toilet for less than $1.7 million.

The head of Orange County's Rescue Mission has told me that the vast majority of people the nonprofit assists self-identify as having a mental health or addiction issue. Yet homeless activists and political commentators push the fiction that homelessness is primarily a housing issue—and advocate their usual litany of solutions: rent controls, eviction moratoria, and additional spending on subsidized apartments.

They make the problem sound easy to fix. As a headline in the Jesuit magazine, America, noted: "Homelessness is only getting worse, but we know the solution: a right to housing." Declaring new rights doesn't solve anything, of course, and only will make matters worse.

Depriving property owners of the ability to evict non-paying tenants and imposing rent controls demonstrably discourages housing investment—and leads to further shortages. In reality, homelessness is a mental health and social issue that's exacerbated by our state's inordinately high cost of housing.

The overwhelming nature of the problem, poor public policies, and aggravating debates lead many people to basically throw in the towel. But that might not be necessary. I recently moderated a homelessness panel in downtown Sacramento, where attendees watched a short movie that compared San Francisco's intractable problems with those in San Antonio. There are no easy buttons, but the documentary, "Beyond Homeless," did offer a thoughtful blueprint.

Essentially, the Texas city built a lovely campus in an industrial area not far from downtown. It offers dormitories, a cafeteria, clean restrooms, and a panoply of social services. It's run by a nonprofit organization. According to the filmmakers, San Antonio's downtown unsheltered homeless population dropped by 80 percent. The program has moved 6,000 people into permanent housing.

The state and cities already are spending billions of taxpayer dollars a year, so why not spend more of that money in this humane manner? California officials would be thrilled to reduce its downtown homeless populations by that degree—even if dealing with the remaining 20 percent of homeless people is still challenging. (With the latter, the state's new CARE Courts, which "sentence" low-level lawbreakers to services rather than jail, will help.)

This approach would satisfy the federal Martin v. City of Boise decision, which limits the ability of cities to enforce anti-camping ordinances unless they have a place to house homeless people. So here's the basic model: Build a big, nice campus for homeless people that offers an alternative to living in parks and on sidewalks. There's more to it, but maybe everyone is overthinking the problem.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.