Sacramento’s mayor thinks he’s hit on an answer to the city’s homeless problem. He wants to provide them with housing vouchers. Of course, he’s likely to find the result will be the exact opposite of the one he’s looking for.
In downtown Sacramento alone, there are reported to be more than 60 regular homeless living on the streets. Across Sacramento County, there are nearly 5,000. Peter Tateishi, president and CEO of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said that the homeless problem is consistently the “no. 1 concern” among members. The homeless camp in front of merchants’ doorways, use their stoops as latrines, and chase away shoppers with aggressive panhandling.
While the business community is finding it difficult to conduct commerce under these grim conditions, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants to prioritize federal housing vouchers for the city’s homeless. Advocates for the homeless believe it’s a kindhearted and effective solution. But it’s no humanitarian response. It will create dependency among the homeless and near-homeless, and rob them of their human dignity.
Sacramento isn’t the only California city with a homeless problem. Los Angeles has the largest population of chronically homeless people in the country with nearly 13,000, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported last year. San Francisco, where City Hall spends about $2 million a year to clean up urine and feces left by transients, has about 7,000 chronically homeless. San Jose-Santa Clara County has more than 2,500 and San Diego County nearly 1,400.
Utah supposedly solved its homeless problem by giving people homes. In 2005, there were 1,932 chronically homeless persons in the entire state, according to the Utah Homeless Task Force. By 2014, that number had dropped to 539, reportedly due to the program that gave them homes.
But Utah is not California. What would be the cost of handing every chronically homeless person in this state – about 30,000, or one-third of the entire chronically homeless population in the country, says HUD – the keys to a home? What about housing the overall number of homeless in the state, which is estimated to be more than 115,000? With California having the highest median home price in the nation at nearly a half million dollars, housing the homeless would be a cost the taxpayers couldn’t – and shouldn’t – bear.
Increased efforts to house the homeless through federal vouchers in the 1980s and during the Clinton years resolved nothing. Another round of this “compassion” will only make California a stronger homeless magnet than it already is while undermining any incentives to break the cycle that puts the homeless on the streets. It won’t correct the problem any more than handing money to the poor will cure poverty.
If public officials were sincerely committed to solving the problem of homelessness, and not merely engaging in virtue signaling, lawmakers would enact policies that expand the economy, unshackle entrepreneurs and create jobs. After all, just as a strong economy is the best jobs program, it is also the best remedy for homelessness.
A functioning housing market, which California doesn’t have, would also help. Years ago, William Tucker found that the high cost of housing and rent control laws are two of the primary drivers of homelessness. Tucker, an author who’s written extensively about housing and the homeless, believes a return of single-room occupancy hotels, which he calls “the last resort of winos and stumblebums in bygone days” but were practical “housing for transients” before being “reformed” almost out of existence, would help.
Of course jobs won’t fully end the homeless problem. Too many of the chronically homeless have mental illnesses that won’t allow them to perform productive work. But it’s only a small portion of the overall homeless population – maybe as low as 13 percent – narrow enough that these victims can be ably served by the assistance and authentic care only private institutions can provide. What they don’t need is the cold and impersonal involvement of governments that are incapable of making informed judgments. Discerning private groups are much better equipped to personalize services to best meet the needs of these displaced people.
A good example of this approach is Project 25, a three-year pilot program created by Republican Assemblyman Brian Maienschein of San Diego. This partnership of more than 20 institutions not only moved nearly three dozen San Diego homeless off the streets and provided them with regular health care, it saved taxpayers more than $2 million a year.
The homeless issue needs more creative, thoughtful public policy, not tired pretense. Unfortunately, too much public policy is about looking good and has no relationship with actually doing good.