Since late December, one atmospheric river after another has pummeled drought-stricken California. The huge storms have provided much-needed relief, in terms of the state’s water supplies, but are coming at a cost: widespread flooding and property damage, some loss of life, and enormous inconvenience as highways are submerged and mountain passes close in the high winds and blizzard-like conditions.
Around Sacramento, where I live, as in so many other cities around the state, the residents of vast homeless encampments are, somehow, surviving in the brutal storm conditions, their tents and cardboard shacks surrounded by pooling water, their garments and other possessions saturated.
I was in India once, a long time ago, during the monsoon season; I remember seeing some of the slums, and slum-dwellers, of Mumbai bedraggled in the deluge. California’s homeless crisis this wet winter bears some similarities. As I’ve written about before, city governments and law enforcement officials are playing a futile game of whack-a-mole. They are periodically and with much fanfare cleaning up an encampment, shoveling up the needles and the human waste and the other detritus, but then standing back and doing absolutely nothing as the same encampment, with the same residents and the same problems, mushrooms a few blocks away from the previous site.
There’s something entirely half-hearted about the smoke-and-mirrors approach to the homelessness crisis, and the accompanying mental health and addiction crises. Something appallingly disingenuous. It’s not a lack of money—Governor Newsom has thrown billions upon billions of dollars into this issue over the past few years; rather, it’s a lack of will, especially at a city and county level, to build affordable housing at speed, an inability of politicians and activists across the ideological spectrum to recognize the need to use legal sticks as well as carrots to get seriously mentally ill and addicted individuals off the streets and into treatment, and an increasingly unnuanced civil libertarian argument that any meaningful effort to end encampments is definitionally a violation of basic rights.
Sure, if moving people off the streets is done badly and with no support services—as unfortunately too often occurs currently—it is a violation of rights; but why not aim high and come together to find long-term solutions to homelessness that go beyond mere platitudes and actually deliver durable results on a large scale? The alternative—standing back and piously declaring any mandatory interventions to be an assault on basic rights—is simply a recipe for ongoing and escalating crisis.
In 2021, with the pandemic still raging, the city council in Sacramento somewhat misguidedly created a “safe ground”—one of several such sites around the city—where hundreds of homeless people could camp under a stretch of freeway, separating downtown from the northern inner suburbs that were then being renovated. The camp, despite lacking running water, electricity, and sewage hookups, was supposed to be a hub for social services; instead, with no viable long-term planning undergirding the experiment, it became a magnet for hundreds of other homeless people, who spilled out, unsupervised, onto the neighboring streets.
At great effort and expense, in the face of a growing outcry from local residents and businesses, the city then spent several months moving denizens of these slums into housing and supportive services, and cleaning up the neighborhood. Now, in the past two weeks, as the rains have intensified, and as other camps a half mile down the road have been cleared—or, for the ones along the rivers, flooded out—the three blocks lining the northern edge of the park running alongside the freeway have once again become lined with dozens of sodden tents and their occupants.
All of that government money and energy, all of the work done by advocates and social workers, and the encampments are at least as bad as before and the neighborhood at least as affected.
This is a failure of public policy, of bureaucracies, and of political imagination on a grand scale. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the human toll of living on the streets is unfathomable, with thousands of unsheltered Californians dying each year. The economic toll is also vast, with large areas in the center of California’s big cities having been ceded to often-violent encampments, and with businesses leaving many of those neighborhoods as crime rates rise.
Street-by-street whack-a-mole strategies will never work to end California’s spiraling homelessness crisis. It’s far past time that the state, backed by city and county governments, took a centralized, coordinated approach to the problem. Unless and until it does, it’s hard to see how California and its political leadership—so genuinely progressive on so many other issues—can fairly claim to be paragons of liberal virtue when it comes to one of the greatest policy and humanitarian failings in the country.