This California Watch column ought to be renamed Crisis Watch, given the number of public-policy crises that have engulfed the Golden State. There’s a common thread in all of them. They all are the result of government agencies or policies.
There’s the housing crisis, caused by state regulations and environmental rules that keep developers from building the number of homes needed to keep up with population growth. There’s a transportation crisis, caused by a state government that doesn’t prioritize road building — and by unions that have driven up road-building costs far beyond the cost in other states.
Let’s not forget about the education crisis, which is the result of a public-school monopoly and teachers’ union-enforced tenure rules. Then there’s the pension crisis, which is the result of promising hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits beyond the pension funds’ ability to pay for them. Now, officials are consumed by the homelessness crisis.
This crisis is rooted in complicated factors, but the fruits of it can be seen in virtually every big and small city across the state. San Francisco remains a beautiful place, but sections of its downtown look like a cross between Road Warrior and Burning Man. The city employs a crew of $184,000-a-year poop scoopers. This being San Francisco, there’s even an app to tell visitors how to avoid large piles of defecation as they meander their way around the city’s streets.
The problem is everywhere. Underpasses and vacant lots are filled with makeshift tent cities. In a historic small town where I own a building, it’s a constant battle to keep homeless people who congregate in a nearby park from sleeping, pooping, and using drugs in the backyard. The police can’t do much, and many of the homeless are downright brazen.
I was fixing a fence on the property, and a few feet away a homeless person was making a mess. I told him he could stay for a while if he cleaned up his litter, but soon enough he got out the crack pipe. I looked at buying one property, but vagrants had broken into the basement and used it as a public restroom. No thanks to that one.
Some cities have tried to clear away tent cities from their public parks, but a federal court decision has limited their ability to do so. City officials can’t shoo them away unless the city has a place for them to go. That sounds reasonable enough, until one considers the results of this limitation. Public parks have become foreboding places and de facto campgrounds, where rats and diseases including bubonic plague now fester.
Do we really have to abandon our public spaces this way?
The homelessness crisis is, in part, a result of the state’s housing policies. Land-use regulations have driven up the cost of land and price of construction. There’s something called a housing ladder. People move their way up the ladder as their finances improve. When I was young, I bought a dumpy World War II-era matchbox house in a marginal neighborhood, then sold it and moved on up to something better when I earned more money. Someone else bought my house, which was a move up the rung from wherever he was previously living.
The homeless can’t get on any rung of any ladder when those SROs (single-room occupancy) above little stores are now sought-after by well-paid professionals. When cities make it so difficult to build any housing, there will be fewer places to build homeless shelters. Cheap motels and other properties that often house the near-homeless are targets for renovation in this crazy real-estate market. That leaves few options other than old RVs or the street.
But homelessness is not solely about a lack of housing. The homeless population is dominated by mentally ill people, alcoholics, and drug addicts. As I’ve seen firsthand, many of the homeless have essentially become feral. One rescue mission official told me that 50 percent of the people to whom they offer shelter simply decline the help.
We shouldn’t ignore the problem or lack compassion toward the homeless. And we can’t take a law-enforcement-only approach to it, either. That has done little other than push encampments down the block or fill up jails. But policymakers should at least understand the nature of the problem before they pitch costly solutions. Sadly, they mostly ignore the reasons people became homeless in the first place. Many progressive locales have obstructed homeless projects.
Not surprisingly, California has focused mainly on defending the rights of the homeless, which only makes them harder to dislodge from public and private spaces, and spending billions of dollars on affordable-housing projects in the hopes that below-market-rate apartments will help ease the situation. But the waiting lists will always be long for such housing, and few homeless people have the social wherewithal to move into them.
The newest idea is for the government to give every homeless person a home. Such ideas are backed by simplistic reasoning. For instance, in February Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote about research from Central Florida showing that “the region was spending about triple on policing homeless people’s nonviolent rule-breaking as it would cost to get each homeless person a house and a caseworker.”
That kind of statement is reminiscent of those who say such things as, “It costs more to incarcerate a person than it does to send them to college.” Yes, it does, and it’s a result of government’s enduring inability to provide public services cost-effectively. That makes an effective meme on a progressive Facebook page, but it illuminates nothing. It’s not like we can simply empty the prisons and send convicts to Berkeley instead.
Yglesias’s conclusion is that “when it comes to the chronically homeless, you don’t need to fix everything to improve their lives.… What you need to do is target those resources at the core of the problem — a lack of housing — and deliver the housing, rather than spending twice as much on sporadic legal and medical interventions.” The article’s premise is summed up in its headline: “The most cost-effective way to help the homeless is to give them homes.”
This line of thinking is echoed frequently these days, but it’s asinine. Yes, there’s a desperate need for nonprofits to build homeless shelters and sanitary temporary encampments, but just “giving” the homeless homes isn’t going to eliminate all the social-service, policing, and other costs. When perhaps half of the homeless won’t take free services, owing largely to their addictions and mental illnesses, this wouldn’t solve the problem by any stretch.
As H.L. Mencken wrote, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” I’m not offering my own simple solutions, but I will offer this guarantee: No matter how much money they throw at the problem, California governments will be struggling with this crisis well past my lifetime.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.