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6 Points to Consider in the Debate About Homelessness

Policymakers need to focus more on harsh realities if they want real solutions.

It's amazing what a civil rights lawsuit and some federal judicial muscle have done to force officials in California to address the vexing homelessness problem in Orange County, especially in the dreary encampments along the Santa Ana River trail. Judge David Carter excoriated county and city officials during an unorthodox court proceeding on Tuesday that produced in hours an agreement that had been elusive during weeks of wrangling.

The deal lets local governments clear out the sprawling camps in exchange for providing 30-day emergency vouchers for people to stay at motels. The Orange County Board of Supervisors also announced that it will soon provide more than 300 additional beds or tents for the homeless at facilities around the county.

Homelessness isn't just an Orange County problem, of course. It's a growing mess throughout California and the nation. I've seen communities of all sizes and political dispositions wrestle unsuccessfully with it for decades. Cities such as San Francisco that throw money at the problem become magnets for homelessness, with sections of the city resembling an outdoor sewer.

Other communities, including Los Angeles, have tried to more aggressively roust the people sleeping under freeways, along riverbeds and in public parks. But this does little long-term good. There's a reason they are called homeless people. They have no place to live, so they just push their shopping carts somewhere else.

Nothing really works and it's cost prohibitive to build enough shelters for everyone. And some of the homeless are essentially feral—they're not going to live in a shelter (especially ones that forbid drug and alcohol use) even if it's offered. Judge Carter made reference to that point: "Some will take advantage and some won't. Some who want to wander will wander. Some who want to leave will leave."

While there might not be any simple solutions, there are some points that policymakers ought to consider as they wrestle with the problem:

First, officials should stop doing things that make things worse. Years ago, the city of Anaheim was so insistent on "cleaning up" cheap motels that dotted Beach Boulevard that it passed a law that forbade people from living there. Residents were forced to leave every 30 days. These motels had become the last step before homelessness, so you can guess what happened. It still strikes me as an example of what not to do.

Second, it's foolish to depend fully on the public sector to "fix" the problem, even though this is a legitimate area for government intervention. Governments are incapable of efficiently fulfilling even their most fundamental purposes (infrastructure, public safety, etc.). So hopefully there's a much bigger role for nonprofits and private efforts.

Third, let's realize that homelessness isn't primarily a problem about a lack of homes. Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, told me that 58 percent of the people who sought services from the mission in 2016 and 2017 self-identify as having a chemical dependency. And 33 percent stated that they have a mental illness.

Fourth, homeless advocates need to realize that not everyone who is upset at nearby homeless congregations is being mean. Most everyone wants these troubled people dealt with humanely. But no one has a right to set up a camp on public land or on someone else's private property. I've seen once-lovely city parks turn into disgusting and foreboding places. "It's the wild west," Palmer said about the encampments. I've had homeless people defecate and leave heroin needles on my property. There are serious crime issues. I love when charities feed the homeless, but have seen massive camps sprout in neighborhoods around food centers. The public has legitimate concerns.

Fifth, we need to call out shortsighted policies when we see them. Last month, homeless activists were arrested in the city of El Cajon for feeding homeless people in a city park. City officials there justified their policies as a way to combat a hepatitis A outbreak. (Some argue that such outbreaks are caused by the state's ban on plastic bags, which homeless people had used to clean up after they poop.) Is it unreasonable to expect a city to come up with more constructive approaches than sending police?

Sixth, we need to realize that state policies have unintended consequences. The homeless aren't living in tents simply because they couldn't come up with rent for an apartment. But excessively high home prices—driven by the state's land-use controls—create pressure at every level. They reduce the availability of cheap apartments and shelters. Furthermore, some criminal-justice policies reduced the jail population and many of those released joined the ranks of the homeless.

So maybe Orange County's deal was a decent resolution to an impasse, but it will barely scratch the surface. There are no easy answers, of course, but it would be nice if state and local officials tried thinking more creatively about this growing problem.

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

Photo Credit: Jeff Gritchen/ZUMA Press/Newscom

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  • buybuydandavis||

    "Sixth, we need to realize that state policies have unintended consequences. The homeless aren't living in tents simply because they couldn't come up with rent for an apartment. But excessively high home prices—driven by the state's land-use controls—create pressure at every level."

    I know Reason thinks the law of supply and demand was repealed for the labor market, because Open Borders. Was it also repealed for the housing market?

  • SQRLSY One||

    I cannot see how any sober-minded, serious reader can read Reason.com (very recent article about a housing case in San Fran comes to mind, http://reason.com/blog/2018/02.....years-1-mi ), and/or point number 6 (six) above, and believe that Reason.com has STOPPED believing in a free market in housing. Are you reading the articles here? Or are you an "in buddy slumlord" with exorbitantly priced, existing shit-slums that you can charge a fuck-ton of money for (thanks to over-regulation), and then sneer at the resulting homeless?

  • sarcasmic||

    "But excessively high home prices—driven by the state's land-use controls—create pressure at every level."

    So when Reason says that government's manipulating of supply has an effect on prices they are saying that supply and demand don't apply?

    Talk about reading comprehension fail.

  • Kivlor||

    Millions of immigrants have no effect on housing / rent prices. Because Mexican food.

  • SKR||

    Well duh they supposedly live 15 per apartment. So the effect is minimal.

  • Mitsima||

    You keep using those words, "Reason thinks". I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "I know Reason thinks the law of supply and demand was repealed for the labor market, because Open Borders."

    So Reason is totally silly for being in favor of more-open borders, is what I think you are fairly clearly implying.

    Because why? Because too-too many illegal humans taking R jerbs? Restricting the labor supply is WUNDERBAR 'cause it makes R wages go UP?!?!

    I think that is also an excellent justification for preventing ANY more baby-making among the natives, 'cause those little maggots are gonna grow up and TAKE R JERBS!!!!

  • Azathoth!!||

    Because an illegal labor force that citizens cannot compete with because of stringent labor laws is 'the free market'.

  • SQRLSY One||

    I have read ten zillion times about farmers busting ass to find native-born Americans who can stand to pick veggies or fruits for more than a day or two, and LAST longer than that, at these kinds of jobs, and they can NOT find hardly any! Feel free to go and pick fruits and veggies, and tell me all about it!

    The State of Georgia had millions of dollars of fruits rot in the orchards when they tried to crack down on the illegal humans. This isn't a "free market" at all, when this sort of crack-down happens!

  • Rhywun||

    farmers busting ass to find native-born Americans who can stand to pick veggies or fruits for more than a day or two

    It would be easier if we weren't paying so many of them to not work.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Amen!!!

  • Mark22||

    Because why? Because too-too many illegal humans taking R jerbs?

    No, because too many illegal humans are taking my money.

    Average per capita government spending in the US is around $25k. If you don't pay that much in taxes, you are living at the expense of other tax payers. Most illegal migrants are nowhere near paying $25k in taxes per year.

    Now, you will say, there are plenty of Americans that don't pay $25k/year in taxes either. And you are right, there are! But that's already a huge problem, and we don't need to add to this problem, we need to reduce it.

    We should have open borders... for anybody who pays more than $25k/year in taxes.

  • Paloma||

    Or maybe cut spending in half.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I doubt Reason thinks the law of supply and demand was repealed for either the labor market or baby-making among natives. Supply and demand is always in effect.

    People tend to move to where they can get a job, and leave behind places where there are few or no jobs. For example, during the protracted recession, more illegals left than came in.

    It's actually not all that different with baby-making. Sure, it's a biological drive for most of us to have a kid or two at some point in life. But most people you see having six, ten, twelve kids either have zero financial prospects, zero education, or simply need farm hands and keep losing future-farmhands to childhood diseases.

    It's actually here at Reason that they've written about how, in every culture and country, as soon as people (especially women) receive even a very modest improvement in their economic status or their education, the birthrate drops like a stone. Why do you think Malthusian doomsayers get ridiculed so much around here?

  • Longtobefree||

    There's a reason they are called homeless people. They have no place to live, so they just push their shopping carts somewhere else.

    They have lots of places to go. They just refuse to go there. So the issue is not homelessness, it is street theater abetted by liberals who need people to point to and say "see, we must do something".
    Of course, the most effective something to do is incarcerate the drug dealers until we legalize drugs, and incarcerate the truly mentally ill. But that would eliminate the problem, and leave one less crisis crying out for 'DO SOMETHING'.

  • VicRattlehead||

    so toss people in jail for voluntary exchange between adults, and lock up the mentally ill..... your name is longtobefree but you clearly dont understand freedom

  • Mark22||

    so toss people in jail for voluntary exchange between adults

    Can a private HOA prohibit categories of voluntary exchanges on its property?

    So why not towns or cities?

  • albo||

    Nebraska has tons of open space, cheap housing, and needs people. If housing is the true problem according to homeless advocates, offer urban campers a ticket to Nebraska and a place to live.

  • Sevo||

    "...even though this is a legitimate area for government intervention..."

    No, it isn't.
    See how easy it is to rebut that "argument"?

  • SQRLSY One||

    "No, it isn't."

    Now THIS is how to argue! Monty Python skit shows us how it's done!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQFKtI6gn9Y

    "I'd like to buy an argument".

  • Robert||

    Do they at least have responsibility to deal w those squatting on gov't land?

  • Robert||

    I shouldn't've written "responsibility", because that may be too much. Authority? That is, as long as they maintain properties, they have authority to determine its uses. Also the usu. duties of care landowners have re safety.

  • Sevo||

    "Do they at least have responsibility to deal w those squatting on gov't land?"

    This came up during the BLM squatter discussions.
    I'm convinced that a city gov't has the responsibility to keep 'publicly-owned' land available for the public; IOWs, no one is allowed to live there. If they do, they are appropriating what should be available for use as residential property.

  • Agammamon||

    The deal lets local governments clear out the sprawling camps in exchange for providing 30-day emergency vouchers for people to stay at motels.

    1. I'm willing to be no one consulted the hotels about this. They're not going to want these guys descending on them en-masse and its just going to leave a bunch of hotels with a headache as they try to evict people at the end of the voucher period.

    2. I bet the vouchers won't cover anything but the most fleabaggiest hotel in the city nor any damage caused.

    3. It doesn't even work as a short term solution.

    You know what was working? Them sleeping in their own tents down by the river. Maybe someone should have considered portioning a piece of it off and renting out spots real cheap, ala a swap meet. *Obviously* we couldn't let a private owner do this (because 'muh profits!') but the city could.

  • Rhywun||

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    "They're spending $7,716 a month when we could have a fabulous apartment for $3,000!"

    Holy monkey balls! The mortgage on my house is $850/month.

  • albo||

    Mine, too. And that gets me 2200 square feet and a nice backyard in the suburbs

  • Rhywun||

    Maybe we should ship all our homeless to your suburb, then.

  • albo||

    I practically had one next door. He's almost a clinical hoarder. Thank god he's moving.

  • Rhywun||

    *shudder*

    Hopefully he takes his collection of rodents and cockroaches with him.

  • Rhywun||

    I could get a decent 2BR in my Brooklyn neighborhood for half that. Unfortunately nobody's putting me up in an expensive Manhattan neighborhood.

  • Mark22||

    NYC has put thousands of homeless into hotels, and they're not all fleabags either. They're just waiting to build "permanently affordable" housing... any... day... now.

    The hotel lobby likes the government revenue.

    Home owners and developers like the high cost of real estate created by city policies that limit the housing supply.

    The system keeps going because of a vast influx of tax dollars via the federal and state government.

    You have to admire the scope and intricacy of the corruption.

  • albo||

    Bring back SROs.

    No, they can't sleep in their own tents down by the river. We don't want cholera. At least open a campground for them with a rudimentary septic system at least.

    And you don't get to bogart a spot of public property because you don't have a place to live. Public property is for all to use, not one person to claim.

  • Rhywun||

    I might add that the hotels NYC uses to store thousands of homeless are required to have private baths. SRO's (if they still existed) or any kind of boarding house situation isn't good enough for them.

    I've lived in worse places on my own dime.

  • Agammamon||

    Second, it's foolish to depend fully on the public sector to "fix" the problem, even though this is a legitimate area for government intervention.

    I'm not sure this is. Government is there to secure rights, not make our lives better. In so far as any particular person isn't bothering anyone else, its not the government's place to interfere in their lives. Yes, even when their lives have gone to shit.

    Anything else leads to the nanny-state.

  • Mark22||

    I'm not sure this is. Government is there to secure rights, not make our lives better. In so far as any particular person isn't bothering anyone else, its not the government's place to interfere in their lives.

    You misunderstand. Home owners pay thousands of dollars in taxes every year to keep the streets clean and pretty, and they are prohibited by law to take matters into their own hands in that regard. It is therefore government's job to protect home owners from the problems created by homeless setting up camp in their neighborhoods.

  • I can't even||

    I've considered all these points. Now stay off my lawn.

  • chipper me timbers||

    You know what is the #1 cause of homelessness?

    Good weather.

  • Rhywun||

    Well, homeless camps, anyway. We don't have that in NYC, or nice weather, but we sure do have a lot of homeless.

  • kingnp2n||

    You must know SoCal. I was stationed in San Diego a few years ago. Those folks don't give a damn about homes or jobs. They bathe in fountains in Balboa park. For whatever effing reason, they like to camp out next to the bloody post office downtown. They run around, armed with bonhomie, approaching people for hand outs and a few choice words for any who dare to say "no." It seldom rains, it never comes close to freezing, cops don't bother with them - so far as I can tell, there is simply no incentive.

  • albo||

    6 Points to Consider in the Debate About Homelessness

    Every single one of these points have been known and made since the homeless "epidemic" suddenly appeared during the Reagan administration.

    Despite that, the left has ignored them and continued along the same wrong policy path. What do they say about continuing to do something even though it never works?

  • Longtobefree||

    What do they say about continuing to do something even though it never works?

    "It's good enough for government work." Also "It may not work, but it gets me re-elected."

  • Marianna||

    "There are no easy answers."

    So could you give us some difficult answers? Listing government screw-ups is always satisfying, but I've yet to see many libertarian-ish solutions to this problem. TYIA

  • Harvard||

    I'll take a stab. Privatize education. Let schools address this problem themselves. Many would hire security personnel. Many would arm school personnel. Some may require everyday lockdown. Some may build moats. Some would require psychological testing. Parents could then choose the school available in their area they felt best addressed the issue at a financial cost they could assume. And you could mind yer own bidness.

  • gormadoc||

    Are we imprisoning the homeless in public schools now?

  • Echospinner||

    There is no free market solution other than a market economy with near zero unemployment for those who can and want to work. We already nearly have that for now.

    The two most common causes for homelessness are drug addiction and mental illness. Those are public health issues. In my view public health as a function of government is legitimate for small government types. Public health such as combatting the newest virus or TB is no different. I am not talking insurance. I mean having the CDC, state and local health departments and support for those type of efforts.

    It is cheaper and easier for addicts to get street drugs than it is for them to get treatment. There is a supply and demand issue right there. It is a problem not limited to the homeless and drug addiction is costing us a great deal of money already. I would be in favor of spending more on effective proven treatment. It will not end the problem but can reduce it.

    Mental illness I would take the same approach. Look for strategies that work and apply them. There are plenty of people with mental illness who are functional at some level. Some will fall through the cracks but we can do better.

    There are no magic solutions but with responsible management the problem can be reduced. Libertarians know that reality is we cannot "fix" everything, nobody can and that is where collectivists fail in promises to do so.

  • Mark22||

    The two most common causes for homelessness are drug addiction and mental illness. Those are public health issues.

    Actually, they are primarily the result of individual choices, and pretending that fixing these problems is the responsibility of government is probably significantly responsible for why these problems are so common in the first place.

  • Eman||

    I didnt realize deducting state taxes from federal taxes was a thing before trump stopped allowing it. It's kind of insane it could ever be done. gotta give credit where credit is due though, It is an impressively sneaky way of defanging federalism.

  • Mark22||

    Sixth, we need to realize that state policies have unintended consequences. The homeless aren't living in tents simply because they couldn't come up with rent for an apartment. But excessively high home prices—driven by the state's land-use controls—create pressure at every level. They reduce the availability of cheap apartments and shelters.

    You're out of touch with reality if you think that that is an "unintended consequence".

  • Eman||

    How many homeless people even vote, bro? Politicians are only as concerned about homelessness as they need to be to keep the homeowners association happy.

  • inoyu||

    Some of the activities of homeless people are tolerable and some are not. Let the authorities judge that a homeless person is being "indecent", or a "public nuisance". Assistance without enforcement is a recipe for nastiness.

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