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The California Homeless Problem Is a Bear
But pretending it's just about housing misses its most salient features.
I’m supplementing this post with a “From the Archives” column on similar themes, originally published in 2019.
One of my condo association neighbors recently put an old sofa out on the curb for pick up by the city’s “bulk items” collection service. The city missed a few promised pickups. Before we knew it, a group of vagrants had made themselves at home and were eating, drinking, and littering. After receiving multiple complaints, the city finally agreed to a date certain. My neighbor put the couch in storage and tried to sanitize the now-stinky area. He and I picked up most of the trash.
Such is life in today’s West L.A. We don’t have the most scary homeless people—this isn’t San Francisco—but we certainly have a lot of usually messy campsites on sidewalks, in parks, and in nearly derelict RVs by the side of the road.1
In one of the most hyper-regulated places this side of Singapore, the level of public disorder is disturbing. Everyone complains about it. A recent LAT op-ed titled “Why my pyromaniac neighbor lives outside the law,” captures the frustrations of the compassionate liberal with a lick of sense:
Anyone who walks L.A.’s streets or takes our public transit understands that people experiencing homelessness effectively exist in a state of lawlessness. It feels as if authorities are unwilling to intervene except in cases of serious crimes committed against housed people. Under Dist. Atty. George Gascón, the city largely does not prosecute misdemeanor offenses such as drug possession and disturbing the peace that he says are linked to addiction or homelessness.
This is admirable in the abstract, and ideally the police would not be the city’s point of contact for our unhoused population. But increasingly this disregard seems to have filtered to the general citizenry as well, and it feels as if we have simply become accustomed to seeing people passed out in the street, or smoking meth on the sidewalk.
The belief that we are showing people experiencing homelessness compassion if we spare them the attention of law enforcement is understandable but is fundamentally misguided. Through volunteer work and by talking to people in my neighborhood, I have met many unhoused people. Most of them do not set things on fire. They do not walk naked through traffic, and whatever issues they have with substance abuse they keep mostly to themselves. In my experience, the majority of crimes committed against people experiencing homelessness are never reported because they are most often perpetrated by other unhoused people. Placing the unhoused outside the consequence of law also means placing them outside its protection.
Moreover, the city’s failure to enforce the law among the homeless population puts that burden on private citizens, with potentially awful results. Despite all my experience working with the unhoused, I was scared and furious the last time I saw J. It isn’t hard to imagine our interaction ending badly. We don’t ask Angelenos to put out fires unless they are trained professionals, nor should we have them serve as de facto homeless outreach workers. Doing so fuels the tensions between the housed and unhoused citizens of Los Angeles.
A Ninth Circuit court decision equating bans on living on sidewalks and parks with cruel and unusual punishment limits what public authorities can do. (When the court recently affirmed the matter en banc, its conservative judges issued scathing dissents.) Along from the legal restrictions, there is a powerful cultural taboo against considering the public order aspects of homelessness, as opposed to its humanitarian dimension. We’re supposed to choose empathy over order, as though they can’t coexist.
In a recent New Yorker column, Jay Caspian Kang writes that “much of the public’s confusion about what should be done about the crisis comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what homelessness actually looks like.” He then goes on to explain, correctly, that public attention focuses on a small fraction of the Californians without shelter.
When the state of California talks about homelessness, it’s largely drawing upon a consensus of experts and advocates who want to employ an evidence-based approach to the issue, aiming to prevent people from slipping deeper into homelessness—whether from housed to unhoused, or from short-term to chronic. When aggrieved individuals talk about homelessness, they’re often talking about their visceral response to the “service resistant” individuals who make up just a fraction of the over-all homeless population. The average homeowner or renter in San Francisco or Los Angeles doesn’t really care who might be staying in the shelter system, nor does he care all that much if a family has decided to crash for a few nights in a car (as long as it’s not parked on his block). He cares when he walks down the street to his office and has to pass through encampments, or when someone walks onto a bus and starts to act erratically. He doesn’t see how building housing for mostly stable people who are quietly living in cars actually addresses the problem.
If you define “the problem” as people without homes, then Kang’s more-evidence-based-than-thou attitude makes sense. But there are actually two different problems. One is about housing and the other is about public behavior. As someone who writes, reads, and cares a lot about housing—I’ve gone to public meetings and sent emails to legislators—I fully understand that California has a housing shortage. That shortage hits economically precarious people especially hard. It’s ridiculous that Californians can live on the sidewalk but can’t swiftly construct new apartment buildings without endless reviews and expensive mandates. Supportive housing alternatives can indeed help vulnerable people. Kang’s favored “evidence-based approach to the issue” is fine and dandy if you define the problem as only about housing and dismiss other concerns with phrases like “aggrieved individuals.”
But policies to address the housing problem, however worthy, do not make complaints about the public order problem illegitimate. Normal people want to safely use the sidewalks, parks, subways, and bus stops that supposedly exist for everyone’s benefit. Safe camping sites, like the ones San Diego has opened, are a constructive alternative—but they’re paired with restrictions on “unsafe camping” that push people to use them. More could be done to provide similar safe spots, with toilet facilities, for people living in RVs they don’t want to give up in return for inside shelter that might later disappear. (In their situation, I’d make the same decision.)
If you want to build political support for the “mostly stable people who are quietly living in cars,” you can’t do it by pretending you’re addressing the visible problems that scare normal people. The current bait-and-switch breeds resentment, undermines civic institutions, and drives away the productive inhabitants on whom flourishing cities depend.
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I’m convinced that if homeless people were neat, keeping their stuff and activities within confined spaces, they would attract much less hostility. But then those who are neat are probably also capable of finding at least temporary places to live. When I admired the incredibly tidy arrangement a guy had set up around the corner from me, he told me that, unlike others, he’d opted to stay on the street until it started to get hot. He seemed to assume a knowledge of his options that I don’t possess. But I inferred that he had access to shelter but only for a temporary spell. A week later, he was gone. I would guess that he is one of the many veterans attracted by the nearby VA.