By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The brutal reality is that homelessness might be here to stay. This possible truth is a bitter pill to swallow. But the blunt fact is there are crucial, near-intractable reasons why that is. I’ll tick them off.
One, it’s a deep, structural problem. Two, it’s fueled in large part by unchecked, unaffordable, high-end development. Three, Los Angeles is a magnet for thousands of persons with challenges, who are from other states. Four, it’s about more than providing housing — it entails meeting the full range of social and human service problems. Five, it’s a global problem linked directly to poverty, race, gender and social disconnect and dispossession.
One of many sobering experiments to end homelessness confirmed how dogged the problem is. A year ago, the federal government in Canada issued a report that, after spending billions in public money to wipe out homelessness in the country, they didn’t know if the money made any dent in the problem. The government spending aimed to cut chronic homelessness in Canada in half by 2028.
Not only did the government fail to get any hard data to determine if the money spent made any impact on homelessness but, worse, officials didn’t know whether there was any realistic hope of coming anywhere close to its target of reducing homeless by the year targeted.
The centerpiece of Canada’s plan was what it dubbed the “reaching home” program. The idea was to move lots of people camped on the streets into some type of housing. Nearly $1.5 billion were spent on the program in 2019 and 2020.
This was yet another huge, cautionary note that simply tossing money at the problem of homelessness, no matter how much and how well-intentioned, is not in and of itself the answer. The glaring fuzziness about whether tossing money at the problem does sparked much finger-pointing among Canadian politicians.
Some accused the government of doing nothing to rein in the massive construction of high-ended luxury and upper-middle-class housing development projects that have dumped thousands of persons on Canada’s streets. The failure to put any appreciable checks on housing development that prices all but the wealthy and well-to-do out of the housing market guarantees that the problem of homelessness will only get worse, no matter how much public money the government spends to try to get a handle on the problem.
The Canadian dilemma, again, is no different than what other U.S. cities face when it comes to getting a handle on homelessness. The city that tops them all in confronting the problem is, of course, Los Angeles.
Homelessness has been the runaway, number one public-policy worry of L.A. officials for almost two decades. Every mayor and every city official has wrung their hands with promises and projected solutions to get rid of the tent encampments that are tantamount to a city of the dispossessed within Los Angeles.
Mayor Karen Bass has spent nearly all of her first months in office proposing solutions, big funding increases and implementing some initial action efforts to get more people off the streets. But even before Bass took office, city officials spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, tossed up a few encampments and makeshift housing here and there, and repeatedly demanded taxpayers cough up millions on the pledge that these dollars would be used to end homelessness. All the while, many of L.A.’s streets, parks, freeway sidings and underpasses have looked like Kolkata, India.
Bass’ public pledges to tackle the crisis have taken a realistic and comprehensive approach to the problem. It is not a matter of simply putting a roof over the heads of thousands of persons on L.A.’s streets or, as Canadian officials discovered, to their chagrin, merely kicking out, not millions, but billions toward fighting homelessness with little to nothing to show for it.
It requires an equal investment in drug and alcohol counseling, job and placement, skills training and retraining, child care, nutrition and the ongoing monitoring of service programs to ensure effectiveness.
This is a long, hard, uphill process. There are no quick fixes. Bass understands that.
It will take a mix of ramped-up approaches — strategic spending, land-use changes, housing subsidies and the expansion of support services — to dent the problem.
The homeless crisis does not exist in a vacuum. It has a nefarious twin that is virtually unchecked, even worse in L.A. than Canada: High rent makes housing and apartment affordability in L.A. a bad joke and swells the homeless numbers.
The monumental challenge is to push the City Council to craft and enact a solid land-use plan to rein in upscale development. That means taking checkbook politics out of the development process, while ensuring the building and subsidizing of more affordable housing.
It’s a daunting task, given the outsized power of corporate developers to get just about anything they want from the L.A. City Council, with minimal checks and controls. That is just one of the five brutal realities of the homeless crisis, realities that must be acknowledged and confronted.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.