Services for the homeless are an attractive nuisance
Good climate, good services, and a chronic shortage of housing combine to create an intractable problem with homelessness in California.
What is the minimum level of housing quality people are entitled to? If you pose that question to Coastal California residents, many will cite their needs for a large single-family detached house with granite counter tops — and they believe they are entitled to it. For me, I’m just thankful I am not homeless.
Have you ever thought about what you would do if you faced homelessness? How would you tackle the problems of daily life without stable shelter where you can store your possessions or control your environment?
If I were facing homelessness, I wouldn’t want to freeze, and I wouldn’t want to starve, so I would seek out a location with good climate and ample social services. Sleeping comfortably on a park bench in Hawaii sounds more pleasant than crashing in Alaska. The want for a good climate rules out the Northern US, the rain and humidity rules out the Southeast, and the good social services rules out Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. That leaves California as the first choice for homeless living.
Because of the good climate and strong social services, California will always be a magnet for homelessness, and the more services we provide to deal with this problem, the stronger the magnet attracts homeless people from around the country.
California has a second problem that creates homelessness: we don’t build enough housing units to accommodate our growing population. Without enough housing to go around, some people have to do without housing. Most of those people leave the state, but many of them end up homeless exacerbating an already bad problem.
By Andrew Gumbel, Monday 6 March 2017
It is less than a hundred yards from the hipster restaurants, cafes, and giant street art installations of Main Street in Venice, California, to a straggly line of industrial warehouses and storage facilities where a homeless encampment has sprawled over an entire city block.
Tents and shopping carts filled with clothing and possessions obstruct sidewalks and parking spaces along 3rd Street and Rose Avenue and prompt unceasing complaints from nearby residents as well as stares of amazement from tourists. The encampment, home to people with nowhere else to go, is a constant reminder that all is not well in one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in North America.
Venice is the quintessential southern Calfornia beach community, an edgy, artsy pocket of the city of Los Angeles … “We see snowbirds in their RVs and young people from all over treat Venice as the campground of America,” Ryavec charged. “I want to provide a bus fare to send them home, because there’s no future for these people here.”
How communities deal with homelessness reveals the power of nimbys to exclude the riff-raff from their neighborhood.
Once in a while, a homeless person will find their way to Irvine and try to camp out in one of the many parks. Irvine’s solution is simple: police offer the homeless person a free ride to the edge of Irvine (a ride they can’t easily refuse), and they pass the problem off to some other community. Most wealthier enclaves in California do the same thing.
Rather than spread the problem around where the scale of the problem is manageable, each community passing the problem off to another concentrates the problems in the few communities willing to deal with it — or at least attempt to deal with it. This pushes the costs of homelessness onto someone else, which is why the solution is so popular among local politicians.
Cities like Venice or Santa Monica must tackle these problems because they end up as the dumping ground from all the nearby cities that push the homeless out. However, dealing with the problem creates an unintended consequence: providing services for the homeless attracts more homeless. …
One of the many ways local lawmakers keep out the homeless is by refusing to provide even the most basic needs for them. It’s more cost effective to treat the problem as law enforcement than to “solve” it through health and human services. Of course, law enforcement doesn’t solve anything, but a one-time police escort out of town is far less expensive than providing ongoing food and shelter, so that’s primarily what communities do.
After decades of doing little more than moving homeless people around and offering services so they don’t starve or freeze to death, the political class is making the case that ending homelessness is both a moral and an economic imperative. …
Still, the political leadership is under pressure . On one side are residents who say they find homeless people urinating on their front lawn and allege, like Mark Ryavec, that the new city services are only drawing more homeless people into the community. As Ryavec put it: “I do not want to see the city of LA become the trailer park of last resort for everyone who has chosen either involuntarily or voluntarily to live in their vehicles.” …
This is another “tragedy of the commons” problem. Each city doing what’s best for themselves creates a situation that hurts us all.
If each city provided the same level of services, the problem wouldn’t be concentrated in a few communities that endure a disproportional impact. Problems like this require a regional approach. Each city should fund a proportional amount to the problem, and the services should be more widespread. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist or merely pushing the problem onto other cities does nothing to actually solve the problem or even deal with the consequences of homelessness.
“The idea that we can push people around and criminalize them doesn’t cut it,” Dennison said. “We need to build and preserve affordable housing to protect the racial and economic diversity of Venice.” … Such strong opinions have made for a vigorous and, at times, nasty political season.
“You can’t complain for years and years that the city isn’t doing something substantive about homelessness and then, when they do start acting, say you’re against it,” Becky Dennison said.
Nimbys can and will complain.
What is the answer?
If we built enough housing to accommodate the needs of those who are currently homeless, wouldn’t we get another crop of homeless to take their place?
We have a problem with a chronic shortage of real estate in California. We need many, many more housing units to meet our needs. When supplies are limited, the substitution effect forces everyone to accept a lower quality house than they otherwise would. At the very bottom of the housing ladder, those buyers who can only afford the least expensive properties get priced out by higher wage earners substituting downward.
Once all the available housing units are taken, like a game of musical chairs, someone ends up without a place to live. This is one reason many of the poorest neighborhoods have two or three families living together in the same house.
And it’s also why many end up homeless.
The solution to California’s housing problems requires ignoring the NIMBYs. We need to allow more market-rate housing to be built-in locations where it’s needed. This would make housing affordable, both rental and resale, alleviating the pressures that forces multiple families to live together and forcing others onto the streets.