How did homelessness suddenly become such a hot issue across California?
There are many reasons – economic anxiety, budget surpluses, tax schemes, prison reform, housing prices and politics – few of which have anything to do with homeless people.
Homelessness has long been a civic obsession in San Francisco. Now, that homelessness hubbub is spreading statewide. A $2 billion bond to pay for housing for the mentally ill homeless became a big part of this month’s budget negotiations. Law enforcement has stirred the pot by claiming that measures to reduce the California prison population worsen homelessness.
In Los Angeles, the biggest political fights are over city and county plans to ramp up spending on homeless services. In San Diego, a leading city councilman called for ending all homelessness by next year, though the promise was overshadowed by the city’s scandalous installation of jagged rocks to dislodge a homeless camp before July’s baseball all-star game.
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In Fresno, Mayor Ashley Swearengin just announced a plan to end homelessness in three years. In Sacramento, homelessness was a leading issue in this month’s mayoral election. Orange County may appoint a “homeless czar.”
Given this drama, you might expect homeless populations to be rapidly rising. But homeless counts (the accuracy of which is always debated) suggest the numbers are flat in many cities.
So why the sudden urgency?
The homeless are now more visible to the rich and powerful. New urban development has brought wealthy folks into central-city and industrial neighborhoods that were once homeless havens.
At the same time, anxiety about housing runs as high as soaring housing prices. And memories of the housing crisis are fresh. For many Californians, sleeping on the street no longer seems a distant prospect. Polls reflect this fear, and politicians have seized on the opportunity.
In an extraordinary public letter late last year, then-Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane urged bold experiments on homelessness and criticized his own previous inaction. “I am as responsible as anyone in this community for our failure to address our lack of shelter and our over-reliance on law enforcement and the criminal justice system to manage homelessness,” he wrote.
Self-criticism is easier when money is on the way.
The federal government has stepped up funding for homeless veterans. The state has approved a plan to borrow $2 billion from a state fund for mental health services to fund housing for the mentally ill homeless. This homeless moment has also created opportunities for local money grabs. Los Angeles County supervisors want the state to permit them to impose a new millionaire’s tax to pay for more homeless programs. That would free up money for other purposes – all the more reason to decree a homelessness emergency.
To be fair, much of this money will be spent on a strategy that has shown some success – providing permanent supportive housing. But housing alone is no panacea, and the funding isn’t sufficient to solve California’s homeless problem.
In his acclaimed new book “Evicted,” Harvard professor Matthew Desmond argues that ending homelessness requires a much bolder stroke: Establishing “universal housing” as a right like the well-established right to public education.
Under Desmond’s proposal, the government would issue housing vouchers to families below a certain income threshold so that they pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. He estimates that nationwide the vouchers would cost $60 billion – a fraction of the hundreds of billions spent subsidizing wealthier people through incentives such as the mortgage-interest tax deduction.
Universal housing is the sort of idea California should try – if our homeless moment is really about ending homelessness.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.