Homelessness in America isn’t new, but the breadth and how we define it is. Causes are complex, solutions more so; everyone agrees it is an appalling problem, but why so intractable? The numbers are skyrocketing; over 550,000 people are homeless in the U.S. with only 61 percent in emergency shelters; the remainder sleep in abandoned buildings or tents.
We aren’t the worst; Nigeria has 24 million, Egypt 12 million, Haiti 2.3 million. Affluent nations struggle; Australia, with less than one-tenth our population, has 116,000; Brazil, 222,000. Economic powerhouse China has 2.5 million. Germany has 650,000 (half being refugees). Definitions also vary. Some of the overseas “housing” in slums isn’t much better than our tent encampments. California is the worst-off state, with 162,000 or 28 percent of all U.S. homeless, half of them unsheltered. New York City has the most at 78,000 but they provide beds to almost all. L.A. is next at 64,000, but only 10,610 beds are available, and they only have a 78 percent utilization rate. The problem here is shanty towns taking over sidewalks, freeway ramps, parks, even the Venice boardwalk.
Consequences are devastating; 24 fires a day are started in L.A. by the homeless, 54 percent of all fires. Sometimes it’s a dumpsters and tents, sometimes it’s a home, sometimes entire canyons with many homes. Water quality suffers, E. coli and other pathogens degrade our riparian and marine habitats, along with tons of trash, in a state renowned for strict water protection laws and regular beach clean ups. Medieval plagues threaten like typhus, tuberculosis, shigellosis and hepatitis A. Rats and fleas spread disease, infecting LA City Hall, police stations and nearby businesses and homes. Tourism and commerce suffer, costing our economy dearly. Social impacts abound: children afraid to walk to school as homeless scream profanities, restaurant patrons sickened watching people defecate on the sidewalk outside, neighborhoods become unlivable as people openly inject narcotics on sidewalks, with syringes provided by our government. It’s dystopian.
A quarter of Californians consider homelessness the top issue today, compared to one percent in 1999, according to the Public Policy Institute. We are spending billions to address it. LA’s Measure H overwhelmingly passed, increasing the sales tax $3 billion in 10 years. Flush with a surplus budget, California is doling out $12B on homelessness for the next two years. Not satisfied, the legislature wants to increase taxes to raise $2.4 billion annually. Serious money, but the problem is getting worse, not better. Sadly, it won’t work until we address the cultural genesis.
The Lanterman-Petris-Short law of 1967 made it virtually impossible to have mentally ill people institutionalized. Forty-five percent of homeless people suffer mental illness, while only 4.2 percent of the general population do. We have all seen mentally ill homeless people screaming at imaginary people, laying in their own excrement. There are five-year pilot programs lawmakers have passed for three counties to institute conservatorship, but so far only San Francisco is testing it, and of course the ACLU is fighting them.
Drugs and alcohol are big contributors. Over 60 percent of the homeless abuse drugs and alcohol, compared to 5.8 percent of the general population. The reason many homeless won’t go to shelters is because they prohibit drugs and alcohol. They want to be “free” to feed their habit.
Lastly, ethnicity: the large majority of homeless are white or Black and native born. If the usual excuses such as jobs, the pandemic or housing costs were true, we would expect to see the homeless encampments full of immigrants from Latin America. But we don’t. While being confronted for money in the gas station by an American-born vagrant you will see behind him a Latino selling oranges on the street corner, with a truck full of Latino construction workers driving by. They work hard, have pride, share an apartment and send billions of dollars back home every year to support their families. They aren’t homeless on the streets. It’s the same America, same communities, same economy, but different attitudes. It’s true that five to 10 percent of the homeless work, yet there is a difference between offering a hand up and empowering slothful living with booze or a needle. The bible says we shall earn bread by the sweat of our brow, but somehow in America it has become taboo to expect that. That’s a mistake.
We are a generous people, and the taxpayers have given leadership billions of dollars to address this tragedy. Throwing money at it will fail unless we address the root causes. Laws must allow conservatorship, beds should be provided without drugs and alcohol and society should be repaid with productive work. Poverty isn’t illegal, but spreading disease, starting fires, impeding commerce, squelching tourism and harassing citizens is illegal, and it’s time it ends before paradise becomes unlivable.