Now that California’s shocking homeless problem has been brought to the nation’s attention, it should be instructive to voters heading into the next presidential election to see how the state’s Democratic leadership addresses the problem. Will they properly identify the cause, or will political correctness interfere? Will they deliver the right solutions, or will progressive politics take precedence?
What causes homelessness, and why has it increased in California in recent years? The most popular Democrat answer has been to point to the widening gap between wages and housing costs in California. "Our housing crisis is our homeless crisis," says Elise Buik of the L.A. United Way. This view allows them to offer solutions like higher minimum wage, increased government spending on housing, rent control, laws limiting landlords’ ability to evict tenants, and even laws taxing property owners who fail to make their property available for rent. But is expensive rent really the cause?
It is true that since 2016 Los Angeles rents have been increasing at a rate of about 5 percent per year, and stand well above the national average. But it is also true that average wages in L.A. far exceed the national average, and that affordable housing exists in surrounding cities. For instance, in neighboring Riverside, the average rent sits at $1,525 per month, very close to the national average of about $1,400 per month. If you cannot afford to live in L.A., rational people look to live in surrounding cities, just as New Yorkers who cannot afford to live in Manhattan live in the surrounding boroughs. That is what rational people do. When it comes to the homeless, most often we are not dealing with people capable of thinking rationally.
What we must acknowledge is the significance of mental illness and substance abuse in the homeless community. According to a U.S. Housing and Urban Development report, 45 percent of homeless suffer from mental illness. And, according to a University of Pennsylvania report, about 50 percent suffer from alcohol or drug dependence. According to a U.S. Conference of Mayors 2014 report, only 18 percent of homeless are employed, so it really does not matter what the cost of housing is, they cannot afford it.
Instead of depending on big solutions coming from D.C., Sacramento, and Los Angeles City Hall, communities should be encouraged to provide local solutions.
But apparently it is not politically correct to acknowledge these things. In the Mayors’ report, they entirely omit substance abuse from the list of causes of homelessness. In fact, in the entire 106-page report neither the word "drugs" or "alcohol” appear a single time! Perhaps this should not be surprising considering the report’s authors: Democrat mayors Kevin Johnson (Sacramento), Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (Baltimore), Helene Schneider (Santa Barbara), and A.C. Wharton (Memphis). Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was the lone Republican.
California Governor Gavin Newsom's budget proposes a doubling of state spending on the homeless to $1 billion. It is yet to be determined how that money will be spent. We should watch closely to see how much is dedicated to addressing mental health and addiction. Early indications are not good. One of the few agreed-upon initiatives thus far is $20 million dedicated for legal services for people facing eviction. Not only does that not address the primary cause, it is a bad idea: Making it more difficult for landlords to evict increases rents and makes them more cautious in who they rent to.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, now facing a recall campaign as a result of his mishandling of this issue, has also pledged huge increases in spending on the issue. One use of the spending: Paying homeless people to pick up their own trash. Liberal Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin is clear as to where the money should be spent: “So if somebody is living on the street, they have to go to the bathroom, so let’s provide some toilets,” he said. “If somebody is living on the street, there is trash that they will generate, so let’s provide trash receptacles. If somebody is living on the street, let’s provide showers.”
Contrast these policies with what is being tried in my community of Pacific Palisades, within L.A. City. The community created a task force made up of an “independent group of community volunteers committed to compassionately addressing the serious issues associated with homelessness in the Palisades.” It seeks private, local solutions to the homeless problem, and raises money through local contributions.
The task force members approach and talk to each homeless person in the community, to “help our homeless people receive compassionate, effective services with access to permanent housing.” They even search the internet looking for family members and have reunited a daughter with parents who thought she was dead. While the rest of L.A. has been experiencing double-digit annual increases in homelessness, in the Palisades they report it has dropped by 56 percent in the past three years.
I have seen the difference. Where there used to regularly be about 20 homeless on our local beach, there now are none. Instead of depending on big solutions coming from D.C., Sacramento, and Los Angeles City Hall, communities should be encouraged to provide local solutions.
The Democratic presidential candidates have thus far avoided the issue altogether. But as the nation views California more and more as the petri dish for what these candidates seek to do on a national level, they will be forced to provide answers for the state’s failed policies. That is, unless things turn around quickly. A visit to my community would be a good start.