Metropolitan Failure: Homelessness in the City of Angels
On the corner of Hampton Avenue and Sunset Avenue in West Los Angeles sits the mecca of bodybuilding: Gold’s Gym Venice. The unassuming two-story building is still the favored gym of Arnold Schwarzenegger and is frequented by countless professional athletes whose jerseys adorn the white-washed walls. Across the street sits Google’s Venice Headquarters, a sleek modern campus replete with rock-climbing wall and spacious outdoor lounges, occupying an entire block. To the south is Gjusta Bakery: a hipster cafe spawned from the famous Gjelina culinary tree. By all logic, this precious street space should be among the cleanest, safest and most appealing sections of Los Angeles. Better still, it’s within walking distance of the famed Venice Beach. Seagulls soar overhead. The weather rarely threatens 80ºF. The stuff of dreams.
And then one sees the tents. Quasi-permanent dwellings of plywood, tarp, various metals and every other scrap available from dumpsters or pilfered from someone’s yard or apartment. The piles of garbage and filth ooze across the sidewalk and plop onto the street, forcing the few brave pedestrians to walk into traffic to avoid the sundry domiciles. Automobiles, too–even Google’s self-driving variety–must mind the road lest they crash into the debris. Such homeless encampments do not restrict themselves to sidewalks or open spaces. Freeway underpasses are considered prime real-estate.
These ghastly sights–of fellow human beings living in hovels of camping equipment and excrement–represent one of the greatest policy failures in the history of our country. It is a national disgrace that we allow anyone to live in such abominable conditions.
In recent years, homelessness in L.A. has skyrocketed. Between 2018 and 2020, the city experienced a 32% increase in the population of the city’s homeless and LA county saw 25.9% growth. As of 2022, there are 41, 980 homeless people in the city of Los Angeles. In greater L.A. county, 69,144. There are likely many thousands more unaccounted for, but that is an astonishing number of people even if one accepts the official figures.
The growth of this crisis ironically coincides with a drastic increase in the amount of resources thrown at the problem. Los Angeles–and California more broadly–have the requisite funds and manpower to confront homelessness, yet those in power have committed themselves to a misguided strategy: Housing First.
History of Homelessness
Los Angeles’ history of homelessness dates back to the late 19th century when the newly-constructed Arcade Station, in downtown L.A., became the final stop on the transcontinental railroad. The station was the gateway to Los Angeles for those looking for work. Soon, the streets of downtown Los Angeles were teeming with job-seekers fleeing the Great Depression. A section of downtown Los Angeles, Skid Row, was devoted to accommodating these new arrivals. The vast majority of the homeless during this period were hard-working folks driven from employment by powerful economic forces, looking for better jobs and brighter days. By and large, this is no longer the case.
Los Angeles no longer confronts simply a homelessness crisis or a crisis in the availability of affordable housing, but an open drug-use problem that has turned many of its sidewalks into dangerous drug dens.
In the 1980s, Los Angeles transferred Skid Row’s social services several blocks east. The homeless population followed. This freshly-disturbed population provided an ideal market into which Los Angeles’ drug dealers unleashed their new product: crack cocaine. Homelessness began to change as the drugs fanned out in search of users. In the past, those driven homeless by economic misfortune could subsist somewhat if they managed to secure an odd job or two, but the drug-addicted homeless became unable to find or keep employment because of their disease. The symptoms of the collective addiction began to appear on the sidewalks of Skid Row. The tents popped up, the shopping carts multiplied and curb-side refuse piled high. The encampments began to press up against, and then burst through, the unspoken frontiers of the Row.
These new threats–associated with the increased prevalence of hyper-addictive drugs–presented the city. with a crisis no longer purely economical, but rather at the intersection of drug addiction, mental illness and hopelessness. The crisis yearned for a coordinated and multifaceted solution. That’s not what the residents of Los Angeles got.
In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit threatened to rule against Los Angeles, in Jones v. the City of Los Angeles, regarding an ordinance prohibiting lying down or sleeping on the sidewalk. The city agreed to not enforce the law unless there was adequate shelter available for the homeless, which does not exist. Los Angeles also recognized the legal rights of the homeless to remain undisturbed between 9pm and 6am. The Jones settlement gutted the authority of the LAPD, leaving it unable to do anything about relocating the homeless population living on the sidewalks of the city. Coupled with the city’s inability or refusal to provide shelter beds, the problem reached critical mass. This coincided with the arrival of a drug even more potent than crack: P2P methamphetamine.
P2P–phenyl-2-propanone–is a clear chemical liquid, extracted from legal substances like hydrochloric acid, mercury or racing fuel. By manufacturing methamphetamine this way, drug cartels circumvent the purview of the authorities, as drug enforcement agencies cannot regulate the distribution of these substances like they do other primary methamphetamine ingredients.
The high triggered by P2P meth evokes a response resembling severe mental illness and psychosis. It induces a desire to isolate and bombards its victims with hallucinations and delusions. P2P meth is often laced with fentanyl, resulting in one of the most addictive and potent substances on the planet. Addicts seeking to purge themselves of an addiction to this mixture require an intensive six month long detoxification procedure. The homeless population of L.A. have become the perfect targets for this concoction, as P2P meth is cheap and easily obtainable on the streets.
The most visible elements of homelessness in Los Angeles–the tents, the piles of stuff, the prone bodies in the gutter–are the manifestations of this drug phenomenon. These people are suffering and they require serious intervention in the form of substantive and personalized treatment. They are not getting it. They also require functioning infrastructure to deliver this treatment. L.A. isn’t building it.
Los Angeles’s current strategy to combat homelessness is called Housing First. It emphasizes providing permanent housing to the homeless immediately to act as a foundation upon which to build a support system. Proponents claim that without basic necessities like a home, food and clothing, the homeless cannot attend to their other needs like searching for employment, addressing substance abuse disorders or learning money management. Importantly, the homeless need not graduate through any kind of recovery programs, or participate in any services to acquire or keep their housing. Housing First does offer “supportive services” to aid the homeless with the adjustment to life in their own place, but they are not mandatory.
Both Los Angeles and California have embraced Housing First. In 2016, then–California Governor Jerry Brown declared California a Housing First state. That same year, the voters of Los Angeles approved Proposition HHH allocating $1.2 billion, through property tax increases, to the creation of permanent housing for the homeless. Since then, these funds have produced 3,357 units at an average cost of $596,846. The construction process takes about three to six years per unit. At that rate, it would cost $25 billion to house all 41,980 homeless people in Los Angeles. Worse still, some research has shown that it actually takes 10 permanent housing units to reduce the homeless count by 1 person, due to low exit rates from housing units, large targeting of only the temporarily homeless, and perverse incentives to become homeless in order to receive housing. Considering this, it would actually cost $250 billion to house everyone. That is simply too expensive and inefficient to keep up with the ever-worsening situation. During the intervening six years–between the passage of HHH and today–the homeless population of Los Angeles has practically doubled. Deaths among the homeless population of Los Angeles have also increased in that time: 826 homeless died on the streets of Los Angeles in 2016; 1,383 perished in 2020. The L.A. Coroner’s office concluded that the most common cause of death was drug overdose, a natural partner to open drug scenes.
Housing First, by refusing to treat addiction seriously and not even managing to house people, grants tacit approval to the creation of dangerous open drug scenes. With nowhere to go and no one to help them confront their addictions, open drug scenes are a foregone conclusion for the L.A. homeless. It is imperative that the conditions ripe for open drug usage are not allowed to manifest on the streets of Los Angeles. Tent communities on the streets of Los Angeles are not safe for their residents. Homeless encampments have a tendency to go up in flames, often ravaging small businesses and even homes.The conditions in these encampments render their inhabitants vulnerable to outbreaks of horrible diseases like typhus or hepatitis A. Nor are they safe for the Los Angeles homeowners living or raising children near them. Visible homelessness begets violence. Crimes involving homeless people comprise only a small fraction of all criminal activities in Los Angeles, but crimes involving homeless people tend to be more violent in nature. Between 2018 and 2021, 60% of all crimes involving homeless people were violent crimes. That’s nearly double the rate for all crime in Los Angeles. Much of this violence is committed against other homeless people; these homeless encampments are violent places and it should be a top priority of city officials to curtail violent crime. These open drug scenes constitute a threat to public safety.
A Solvable Problem
Other approaches to homelessness exist. In the late 1980s, European cities were besieged by a similar open drug scene problem. Major European cities, notably Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zürich, Vienna and Lisbon, took action to shut them down . The initiatives resulted in huge successes, as today these cities are free of massive public open-drug scenes. Europe has not solved the problem of homelessness, but these cities have managed to eliminate large scale open drug scenes or, in the parlance of Los Angeles, homeless encampments. It is vital to distinguish homeless encampments from homelessness. Los Angeles has both, but of immediate concern is the problem of homeless encampments because their presence obscures many of the complex economic factors that make life extremely difficult for many Angelenos, like Los Angeles’ absurd housing prices. Los Angeles must deal first with homeless encampments–and the related crises of drug addiction and mental illness–crowding the sidewalks, before transitioning to make any sort of economic modifications. The European approach provides an ideal model for dispersing the homeless encampments.
There were several shared aspects in European responses to endemic open drug use. One worth noting is how an effective response to open drug scenes demands a shared political consensus among the city’s top officials. In Europe, there were vacillations, in several of the aforementioned cities, between law enforcement crackdowns on public drug use and more permissive approaches using social and medical support services as the only form of intervention. Neither method alone proved sufficient. Backtracking and indecision undercut any chances for progress. Cities must commit to a substantive, practical solution and act as one force against the homeless crisis.
Los Angeles is either too big or too politically fractured to take decisive action. Its powerful city council–consisting of 15 members from 15 districts–largely leads the city’s fight against homelessness. This often leads to 15 different approaches. Some council members like Mike Bonin adopt a mishmash of ultra-progressive and libertarian positions, allowing the homeless to freely build their tent cities. Others, like Mitch O’Farrell, pursue more involved policies to combat homelessness that entail political risk. O’Farrell became the target of much progressive abuse after the LAPD cleared out an open-drug scene at Echo Park Lake in early 2021. He recently lost his council seat to an avowed socialist.
The disunity of the city council extends far beyond homelessness policy, as recent events in the national headlines have illustrated. Los Angeles’ governance structure is different from that of many other big cities, in that authority is not wielded as much by the mayor and is instead dispersed across many institutions. To combat Los Angeles’ extreme homelessness crisis, or tackle any complex issue, the mayor and the city council must effectively cooperate and coordinate.
Once the proper city authorities are on the same page, New York City’s approach to homelessness provides a possible solution to Los Angeles’ crisis and one that can enhance the European model. New York City has a right to shelter precedent meaning that anyone unable to provide themselves with a roof to sleep under can avail themselves of one of New York’s homeless shelters. In September 2022 about 60,000 homeless people slept in New York City’s municipal homeless shelter system every night. That’s more than the entire population of homeless people in Los Angeles.
Maintaining New York’s Department of Homeless Services shelter system is expensive. A preliminary DHS budget for 2022 allotted $2.1 billion to combating homelessness in NYC, with the majority going towards sheltering homeless families. However, Los Angeles has demonstrated a willingness to spend similar quantities on its own homelessness crisis with Prop HHH. It’s clear that a New York City style shelter system would be a much more effective way to spend billions of dollars because homeless people would be sleeping in beds instead of in dangerous encampments while waiting for L.A. to build a permanent housing complex. The state of California should shoulder a portion of the costs as well. California is poised to become the world’s fourth largest economy, yet its unsound homelessness policies abandon over 115,000 people to fend for themselves on the streets every night. New York City and New York State have signed three separate agreements to join forces in fighting homelessness and providing housing for the mentally ill and the chronically homeless. California can enter into a similar partnership with Los Angeles to take immediate action. Investing in massive city-wide shelter systems would be a great first step, even though the current orthodoxy says otherwise.
Housing First spurns the idea of investing in a large-scale homeless shelter system. Of course, this is not to say that Los Angeles hasn’t devoted any funds towards temporary shelters. In 2018, Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled his “A Bridge Home” program, promising to construct homeless shelters across Los Angeles. These shelters were designed as a temporary stopover for the homeless on their journey from the streets to a home. However, as of 2020, the city had spent almost $200 million and netted only 2,000 beds. “A Bridge Home” was always a secondary consideration because Garcetti’s administration prioritized Housing First and introduced this shelter program after realizing building permanent housing was taking too long. Even so, the city has recently backed away from creating shelters. “Encampment to home” has become the dominant refrain from city officials and even the tepid investments in shelters under “A Bridge Home” have been scrapped. This is backwards.
There must be a second step between “encampment” and “home”–be it treatment, mental health care, or a shelter. As has been demonstrated, Los Angeles builds housing for the homeless with a stunning absence of speed or efficiency. Policies like Housing First mean the encampments will multiply in the interim, the fires will spread and the misery will take deeper root. The first priority for Los Angeles and incoming Mayor Bass to ward off this looming danger must be to get people off the streets. This can be only done successfully by a concerted, coordinated and competent operation, combining the LAPD and social outreach.
The city should ban sleeping on the streets, and furnish the LAPD with the authority to enforce the ban. This ban should be coupled with the investment in the shelter system so that those banned from sleeping on the streets would have a bed to sleep in. It is time to build a foundational infrastructure of care based on a triage model, letting care-givers differentiate between those homeless suffering from drug addiction, mental health challenges like schizophrenia, and those economically underserved and struggling. Treatment must be compulsory for those who need it the most. Drug rehab clinics and mental health facilities should be made immediately available. If a homeless person requests housing, a personalized rehabilitation program designed to ease their transition from a life on the streets to a prosperous and productive one as a member of society must be completed. Housing should not be handed out to all who request it, for they might be ill-equipped to deal with the challenges. The city itself, especially the elected politicians and community leaders, must meet this challenge for them.
Action Above All
Homelessness in L.A. is not an unsolvable crisis. Europe successfully dealt with this problem in the late 20th century and New York City does a fine job of handling it now. Just recently, Mayor Eric Adams unveiled plans to begin hospitalizing mentally ill, homeless people against their will to ensure they receive the help they need. L.A. can learn from, borrow from, and improve upon both approaches to craft the best policies to fight homelessness. European cities committed to a complex approach–incorporating law enforcement, social services, drug rehabilitation programs and temporary shelters–to beat back open drug scenes. New York City has constructed and maintained a robust shelter system designed to keep the homeless off the streets and off drugs. There are answers. Los Angeles must commit to an effective, practical and successful solution to getting the homeless off the streets. This is only possible when all agree on a shared outcome. Housing for some; treatment for many and, most importantly, dignity for all.
The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license. The original image was authored by Robin Kanouse and can be found here.