Will Housing People in Our Backyards Help Reduce LA’s Homeless Population?

A drive through the homeless encampment in downtown Los Angeles reveals a swamp of squalor unworthy of a first-world nation. Yet there it is, grim and uncivilized.

Los Angeles’ homeless problem is a growing concern. The region has the second-largest homeless population in the country, with more than 55,000 living on the streets. A report out about a year ago said the population had increased 23 percent over the previous year.

Los Angeles policymakers think they have a solution. Most everyone else, to quote veteran journalist Andrew Malcolm, will see it as “an idea that wouldn’t survive the laughter in most U.S. communities.” But our political leaders see themselves as innovators and are working through a plan to place part of the homeless population in huts and other small quarters in residents’ back yards.

“In August, the county Board of Supervisors approved a $550,000 pilot program to build a handful of small back yard houses, or upgrade illegally converted garages, for homeowners who agree to host a homeless person or family,” the Los Angeles Times reported on April 11.

“Rents under the county’s pilot program would be covered by low-income vouchers, with tenants contributing 30 percent of their incomes.”

Malcolm calls it a “A kind of YIMBY” program — “Yes In My Backyard.” But the city is having a hard time finding willing YIMBYs.

“To gauge interest in the idea, the county reached out to 500 homeowners. Less than one-in-five expressed interest. County officials pronounced that overwhelming,” said Malcolm.

Not so long ago, city leaders suggested housing the homeless in trailers that would be plopped down in city-owned parking lots. (Such an arrangement fits in snugly with the political agenda to move Californians out of cars and into mass transit, doesn’t it?) This plan, which would provide homes for 67 of the more than 55,000, would cost $2.3 million the first year. That’s a little more than $34,000 for each person taking residence in a city parking lot. As PRI Director of Development Ben Smithwick has said, “that’s a high price to take care of a tiny percentage” of the homeless.

The proposals that policymakers — at least those who have the political clout to ram through bad ideas — are convinced will ease the homeless problem will never have success. Government simply is not equipped to deal with the displaced. While there’s no way to fully eliminate homelessness, the private sector can at least make deeper inroads toward a solution. That’s where the focus should be.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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