Address homelessness before it’s a problem
June 4, 2018
Citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco are becoming familiar with something I knew well during that portion of my Foreign Service career spent working on refugee affairs: the smell of too many humans living too close together without adequate public sanitation facilities.
Residents and tourists alike are complaining of the trash and human waste on the streets and sidewalks of these two previously attractive cities, and Los Angeles has had to deal with an outbreak of Hepatitis A resulting from the untreated fecal matter in public spaces.
The city's policy makers have decided the solution is to build affordable housing for the homeless, but it turns out the housing is as expensive as private housing (no surprise) and doesn't diminish the homeless problem. When government reaches conclusions by asking the wrong questions or starting from the wrong premise, the supposed solution isn't likely to work. And concluding homelessness can be cured by making housing cheaper is a classic example of asking the wrong question.
Investigative journalist Daniel Greenfield wrote recently about the homeless situation in Los Angeles, and it's not a pretty picture. Efforts by public officials to solve the problem are inept in the extreme: $1.2 billion raised from increased property taxes hit the middle class particularly hard, yet the "affordable housing" that was promised only attracted more homeless. Their number is up 55 percent in six years, to 68,000, and despite a tax hike passed by Los Angeles voters that raised another $5 billion, that too has proved insufficient to house them all. Building cost for homeless housing equals that of the middle class homes that are being taxed out of existence to fund their construction.
This social engineering explains the conundrum that faces Los Angeles' voters and politicians: middle class residents are experiencing prohibitive housing costs due to new taxes and are leaving the state, hollowing out the economy. In their place, residents increasingly fall into two categories: wealthy living in gated communities, or homeless and largely unemployed people living on the street. Greenfield opines: "homelessness is not a social problem. Mostly, it's due to untreated mental illness and drug abuse." But instead of treatment, the approach has been to build more dedicated housing, further attracting new government wards, then subsidizing that housing for people who can't afford it, further burdening taxpayers.
This problem isn't unique to California: Seattle is experiencing growing homelessness too, and their situation is made worse by a $15 an hour minimum wage and a 745-page building code. And now they propose to implement a $275 per worker "head tax" on employers. One wonders how long taxpayers and voters will be satisfied footing the bill for the wrong solution. Now, as election season heats up, is a good time to question politicians for their opinion and plans regarding homelessness.
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All this isn't to say there's an obvious solution that hasn't been implemented, or I'm not moved by the plight of the homeless. It's to say the solutions that have been tried on the west coast aren't causing a reduction in the homeless population: quite the opposite. And the increasing numbers of panhandlers on the streets of Carson City make me think we could soon be facing a similar situation here, and it will be made worse by our ill-advised recreational marijuana laws. I fear our elected officials will come up with the same recommendation for our homeless as politicians in the liberal enclaves west of us: house them as inexpensively as possibly, but house them. They need to study how well that's working in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Fred LaSor retired from the foreign service in 1997 and lives now in Minden.