A dashcam video of downtown Los Angeles on Christmas Day 2017 revealed the devastating reality of the city’s homelessness problem. The video, shot in the city’s Skid Row district, shows dozens of tents, makeshift shelters, and people walking aimlessly along streets littered with trash. The video looked like it was filmed in a third world country, not a major U.S. city.
Los Angeles County has the second largest homeless population of any region in the nation with more than 55,188 people lacking housing. A May 2017 report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that homelessness increased by 23 percent in Los Angeles County over the previous year. To make matters worse, many Angelenos are one paycheck away from homelessness. L.A. has more people in poverty than any major city in America – a problem exacerbated by skyrocketing housing costs.
After years of failed efforts to address the problem, city leaders are contemplating a new idea: housing homeless people in trailers on city-owned parking lots. The proposal introduced by City Councilman Jose Huizar calls for installing five trailers on a downtown parking lot that will house about 67 people. The temporary shelter would operate for three years and officials hope those who live there would transition into permanent housing within six months, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The city has the money to build and operate the shelters – thanks in part to a sales tax hike to fund homeless services approved by voters last March. But is this a good idea or another government boondoggle?
The trailers would cost an estimated $2.3 million for the first year. That’s a high price to take care of a tiny percentage of the more than 25,000 people who sleep on the city’s streets each night. At a recent public event, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti asked City Council members to find locations in their districts to build additional trailers, referring to them as “pop-up villages.”
This is not the first time the city has tried something like this. In the late 1980s, then-Mayor Tom Bradley proposed creating a temporary campground for the homeless in the city’s downtown area. The “urban campground” – located on vacant land near the Los Angeles River – provided hundreds of homeless people with access to portable toilets, water, and lighting. After 103 days and nearly $400,000 in city costs, the project was shut down due to unsanitary conditions. Even then-Deputy Mayor Grace Davis said the experience left city officials convinced “we should not be in the shelter business,” according to The Times.
As PRI’s Fellow in California Studies Kerry Jackson points out a March 2017 column published in Fox & Hounds, increased efforts to house the homeless – mainly through federal vouchers in the 80’s and 90’s – did nothing to resolve the problem. In California, where the median home price is nearly a half million dollars, is it fair to ask taxpayers to bear the costs of housing the homeless?
As Jackson notes in Good Intentions: How California’s Anti-Poverty Programs Aren’t Delivering and How the Private Sector Can Lift More People Out of Poverty, a new policy brief by PRI’s Center for California Reform, state and local leaders should look to develop new and creative private-public partnerships that offer incentives for lifting people out of homelessness. As Jackson writes in Good Intentions, programs like St. John’s Program for Real Change in Sacramento, Solutions for Change in Vista, Working Wardrobes in Orange County, and Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego are “examples of real-life private charities that policymakers should consider replicating across the state.”
In 2015, Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego provided more than 6,000 people with medical care, which the nonprofit estimates saved “the city of San Diego more than $1.8 million due to decreased use of hospital emergency services and ambulances.” The organization reported that in 2016, more than 800 of its clients moved into permanent housing and that 73 percent of its “clients who received targeted employment services in 2016 obtained employment” while “97 percent of clients who participated in our employment program increased their employability.” Father Joe’s is planning to renovate about 2,000 motel rooms in San Diego County into housing for the homeless – a project that will be funded in part by private donations.
Instead of getting back into the shelter business and making Los Angeles a stronger magnet for homeless people than it already is, city and state leaders should take steps to reform housing policies. As Jackson points out in Good Intentions, reducing the many government barriers that create disincentives for developers to build homes would go a long way toward creating a functioning housing market in a state that desperately needs one.
Homelessness will never be fully eliminated in Los Angeles or elsewhere. But we don’t need more “urban campgrounds” or “pop-up villages” for the homeless. Policymakers have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to embrace meaningful solutions that will create lasting change. As Jackson writes in Good Intentions, “rather than yoke the poor to government programs, empower them with opportunity. As many economists, the late Milton Friedman in particular, have noted, economic freedom has lifted more humans out of poverty than all government programs combined.”
Ben Smithwick is Director of Development for the Pacific Research Institute. Prior to joining PRI, he worked at Fox News Channel’s Los Angeles bureau and for the Santa Barbara News-Press.