Over the past week two local elected officials in Los Angeles have made public statements on the homeless crisis that grips the region. They represent two completely different perspectives on how to resolve the crisis.
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The first comes in the form of a thank you letter from retiring Los Angeles city council member Mike Bonin, sent to those of his constituents who wish him well in whatever he does next. With respect to his legacy, Bonin writes:
“By providing housing and services, we are changing lives and providing a pathway out of homelessness. Since the launch of the Venice Beach Encampments to Homes initiative, 76 people have been permanently housed.” Seventy six people. Remember that number.
Bonin’s philosophy is consistent with what remains the prevailing progressive doctrine regarding homelessness, known as “Housing First.” It is defined on the US Department of Housing and Urban Development website as “an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements.”
This approach has made Bonin infamous even among the mostly progressive residents of Venice Beach, where an estimated 2,000 homeless have taken over this tiny beachfront suburb of Los Angeles. Only a small fraction of them have been given “supportive housing” or temporary shelter, and only a small fraction held accountable for using and selling hard drugs, public intoxication, theft, vandalism, or worse.
The other public official who has recently weighed in on these challenges facing Los Angeles is their county sheriff, the outspoken Alex Villanueva. In an interview with California Insider, Villanueva describes how progressive policies have combined to “defund, defame and defang” his department.
In a must-watch video, Villanueva claims that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is the only major local government in the U.S. that has not begun to pull back from the defund the police movement. He claims the worst impact of defunding is the hiring freeze, which has prevented the department’s veterans from mentoring new hires before they retire. But it is the county’s response to the homeless crisis that draws Villanueva’s most withering remarks.
“The problem with city government and county government is that they [woke ideologues] occupy every seat at the table,” according to Villanueva, “That’s why every single plan the city has, or the county has, with regard to homelessness is destined to fail. No other opinion gets in.”
“They think that if we build enough supportive housing we will end homelessness in Los Angeles. But the more you build, the more people will come. Right now we have 25 percent of the nation’s homeless in Los Angeles County. What’s going to prevent more homeless people from coming to Los Angeles if they see someone living in a $500,000 condo with a beach view? They’ll say, ‘hey, I want one too.’ We cannot create the magnet that brings other people here.”
California’s Subsidized Housing – The Boondoggle Archipelago
Villianueva is not exaggerating, and this problem has been known for some time. In a 2019 report by the California Policy Center entitled “The Boondoggle Archipelago,” several representative examples of staggering costs for “supportive housing” were revealed. San Francisco’s Proposition A funding housing at an estimated cost of $500,000 per unit. Alameda County’s Measure A1 funds for housing costing $736,000 per unit. San Jose’s Measure A funds for housing coming in at between $406,000 and $706,000 per unit. Los Angeles’s plan to repurpose an existing structure on the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles to create supportive housing at a cost of $926,000 per unit. Also in Los Angeles, $1.2 billion in bonds to construct supportive housing at an estimated cost of $550,000 per unit.
And back in Venice Beach, Mike Bonin’s back yard, the plan to create 140 new apartment units on a city owned property that is currently the only significant beach parking available to the public. Dubbed “The Monster on the Median” by outraged residents, the estimated total project cost comes up to at least $1.1 million per unit.
These costs are not coming down. But for the 2021-22 fiscal year Los Angeles County has budgeted $527 million to address homelessness. Also for the 2021-22 fiscal year, the City of Los Angeles has allocated $1.0 billion, nearly 10 percent of all spending, “for the homeless crisis.” Add to that the spending on homeless by many other cities in Los Angeles County, plus direct state and federal spending, plus the ongoing disbursements from bonds approved for homeless housing. Will it work?
The most recent homeless count for Los Angeles County was in 2020, with the 2021 count cancelled because of COVID and, for that same reason, the 2022 count postponed at this time. But in 2020 there were an estimated 66,000 homeless in Los Angeles County. It is unlikely that housing has kept up with the influx, since, as Sheriff Villanueva accurately proclaims, Los Angeles is a national magnet for homeless migration. At $500,000 per unit, it would cost $33 billion to house every homeless person in Los Angeles, assuming no more arrived. That doesn’t include the bureaucracy swollen and perpetual costs to manage homeless housing, nor any spending to actually treat them and get them on a path to independence.
As noted in a lengthy 2019 study published by the California Policy Center entitled “The Homeless Industrial Complex,” and as expressed more recently in a provocative and compelling book, “San Fransicko,” by the writer and activist Michael Shellenberger, homelessness is not just a housing issue, to be solved by more housing. It is primarily a mental illness, drug addiction, and crime issue. At the very least, some of the billions in taxpayer sourced funds that are mandated to be spent on “housing first” need to be redirected, with equal amounts spent immediately on treatment, and for some, incarceration. In many cases, involuntary treatment, i.e., incarceration, is the only way to rescue people from addiction.
Mike Bonin, along with countless other intransigent progressives, refuse to accept this reality. But ideological idiocy alone does not explain why common sense reforms aren’t sweeping away these failed policies.
The homelessness and crime afflicting California’s cities, especially Los Angeles, has not been solved because there is an identity of interests between public bureaucrats, powerful nonprofits, and politically connected housing developers, who prefer that policies remain unchanged. The billions pour in, and as the problem only gets worse, additional billions pour in, enabling a Homeless Industrial Complex that thrives on failure.
Members of law enforcement in Los Angeles County, from the elected sheriff to the officers on the streets to the unions that represent them, and to their immense credit, have recognized that progressive ideology – as epitomized by retiring local politician Mike Bonin – has created the problem and is only making the problem worse. It is up to the remaining players that influence policy in Los Angeles and elsewhere to come to the same conclusion, despite whatever detriment a new approach might inflict on their budgets and their prerogatives.
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