In recent months, California’s fabled Venice Beach has seen a growing number of unhoused people living in tents on the boardwalk. Some days, the tents spill over onto the sand, creating a bone-jarring discord between the affluence of the canals just a few blocks inland and the chaotic poverty, mixed amongst the tourist crowds, adjacent to the ocean.
Now, local politicians have announced a plan: Over the coming six weeks, they will find enough housing—in hotels, shelters, and elsewhere—to offer rooms to all the tent dwellers along the beach; and outreach workers will assertively canvass the homeless residents to inform them of their options.
The plan, if it is realized, is a good one; it will provide, at considerable expense, housing to hundreds of people currently living out in the open in often desperately unsanitary and unsafe conditions, and it will clean up the boardwalk.
But it’s also just a stopgap measure in confronting the West Coast’s burgeoning housing crisis. It is occurring in Venice less because of a sudden concern with the plight of the unhoused and more out of a realization that the hundreds of tents lining the boardwalk threaten to undermine a roaring tourist season that business leaders are praying will make up for the lost year of the pandemic.
The small community of Venice Beach alone has 1,000–2,000 homeless people, according to canvasses. (It was upwards of 1,000 before the pandemic, and since then the tent encampments have mushroomed.) Los Angeles County as a whole has an unfathomable 15,000 long-term homeless, and 60,000-plus who are at least temporarily homeless—couch-surfing, living in cars, or sleeping on the streets, and so on. Recently, the Economic Roundtable estimated that this was likely to increase to nearly 90,000 by 2023, part of a staggering 130,000-plus additional homeless in California that the researchers concluded was a reasonable estimate given pandemic-related economic dislocation at the bottom of the economy.
Nationally, the Economic Roundtable team estimated that more than 600,000 working-age Americans could be added to the rolls of the temporarily homeless in coming years. That’s on top of the more than half a million people who are already homeless nationally, a whopping 39 percent of whom are Black.
This is a racial justice and economic justice crisis of staggering import, the ultimate symbol of how America’s current rapacious version of capitalism is utterly failing to rein in the inequalities that markets create.
In one Western state after another, the crisis has spiked early and hard. California already has over 150,000 residents without homes. Oregon, with a total population of only a little over 4 million, has more than 15,000 homeless—and, despite having made some limited progress to reduce the number of unhoused residents prior to the pandemic, has witnessed the emergence of growing encampments since early 2020. Washington has 21,000. In the desert states, Arizona has upwards of 10,000 homeless residents, and Nevada 7,000.
Making matters worse, Western states have a chronic shortage of shelter beds. North of 60 percent of the homeless in California, Oregon, and Nevada were living on the streets, according to data generated just before the Covid outbreak hit. Since then, while California enacted temporary policies, such as Projects Roomkey and Homekey, intended to provide hotel shelter for many of the unhoused, encampments have increased in many cities, with local law enforcement agencies being told to stand down from sweeps and to try to provide safe spaces for tent dwellers to set up residence.
Taken as a whole, with the exception of New York and its more than 90,000 homeless residents, America’s housing crisis is disproportionately centered out West. That’s a product of many diverse societal trends, including migration patterns that have long drawn itinerant Americans westward, zoning and permitting regulations in some states that have created artificial housing shortages (and, at the same time, made it more expensive to build housing units), and criminal justice policies that over-incarcerated low-income people for decades and are now releasing tens of thousands of inmates without anywhere near adequate social services and economic assistance.
Governor Gavin Newsom recently committed an extraordinary $12 billion to tackle the homelessness crisis in his state, and California has also embarked on a complex $5 billion plan to pay off the rent debt, accumulated during the pandemic, of many low-income renters. If that latter plan works, it could forestall the wave of post-pandemic evictions that tenants’ rights groups fear is on the horizon. Legislatures in Oregon recently put aside tens of millions of dollars to build more shelters and to create more wraparound drug treatment services. In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee has been urging the legislature to invest far more in housing services, and in rent-and-utility assistance.
If these plans work, there’s at least a chance that the Western states can turn the corner on this extraordinary housing crisis. But none of it will happen overnight. In a best-case scenario, it will take years for California to build enough low-income and supportive housing units to accommodate the tens of thousands already homeless and the tens of thousands more at risk of becoming homeless over the next few years. In a worst-case scenario, it will all end up as window dressing; with the homeless removed from desirable tourist spots such as Venice Beach and Hollywood, much as they were in New York during Giuliani’s tenure as mayor, but without a broader strategic vision to ensure that the crisis doesn’t simply shift from one locale to the next. That would be a colossal policy failing, and would risk triggering a strong political backlash if voters came to feel that large amounts of good money was being thrown after bad with no durable impacts seen on the streets.