In Portland, Ore., earlier this month, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced yet another major push to bring down homelessness in the city. Portland would open six new shelters, and would also set a target of building 20,000 affordable housing units by 2033. In the meantime, the city would ban unsanctioned camping sites and instead open a series of “alternative temporary shelter” sites that would each host 100 tents and could house up to 150 people. Like the publicly funded campsites that opened in the early years of the New Deal to deal with cascading homelessness out West, these would include facilities such as laundries, restrooms, phone-charging stations, two meals a day, and trash collection. They would also bring in mental health service providers and medical providers and would help with referrals to drug treatment centers.
None of this will come cheap, and none of it will result in quick fixes. But inaction isn’t an option. Portland has more than 3,000 on-the-streets, unsheltered homeless, and it has seen cascading voter discontent over the crisis.
The issue of mass encampments is coming to a head across the American West, with growing pressure on political leaders to find solutions to the scandal of shantytowns—as void of creature comforts and basic necessities, as dangerous to the well-being of those who live in them, as any in Bombay or Mexico City, Johannesburg or Manila.
Since 2018, when the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that cities couldn’t limit public camping if they didn’t have alternative shelter spaces to offer, pretty much every city in the Western states has been inundated with large-scale homeless encampments. It is creating a public health nightmare—in Los Angeles County, roughly 2,000 homeless individuals died in 2021; in San Diego, nearly 600 homeless people died on the streets in 2022. They die of overdoses, heat exposure, cold exposure, and infectious diseases that spread in the camps; they are crushed when trees fall on tents during storms. Many are murdered; others commit suicide. It’s also a public safety nightmare that is causing a growing political backlash.
As The New York Times reported last week, in Phoenix there is now an encampment with well over 1,000 people—who live without access to safe water, toilets, or showers; cook around open fires; and sometimes fight, have sex, shoot up drugs, or have psychotic, often violent, episodes, out in the open—making it all but impossible for local residents and small-business owners to continue with their daily lives. Nobody benefits from this situation. Housed residents and businesses don’t, but neither do the unhoused, who end up particularly at risk of violent deaths, extreme illnesses, and the daily humiliations that accompany such absolute poverty.
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In Sacramento, with just over half a million residents, there are now upwards of 10,000 homeless people, far more than half of whom live on the streets. That’s a higher number of on-the-streets homeless than New York City has—and New York’s population is about 15 times that of Sacramento’s. It’s about the same number of on-the-streets homeless as London, England, the greater metro area of which has a population of about 12 million.
Los Angeles has almost 70,000 homeless residents, of whom roughly 30,000 are unsheltered. San Francisco has nearly 8,000 unsheltered homeless. In San Diego, over 4,000 live unsheltered on the streets and in the canyons. Oakland has more than 3,300.
In Portland, disabled residents recently sued the city, asserting that the city’s tolerance for tent encampments that block sidewalks make it impossible for people in wheelchairs to safely navigate around town. Opinion polls show that the homelessness crisis is far and away Portland residents’ number-one concern at the moment. Other polls show that residents increasingly view the city’s quality of life as deteriorating.
It’s tempting for progressives to dismiss all of this as the NIMBYism of the privileged, but that’s far too pat a response. When huge informal encampments flourish, crime does go up, the ability to walk safely through one’s neighborhood declines, and the risk of random encounters with people undergoing psychotic episodes does increase. That affects everybody, including the camp dwellers themselves. And it particularly impacts the central districts of cities. It drives businesses out of downtowns—hundreds of businesses have left central areas of Seattle in the past few years. It depresses property values—not for the most affluent but for those who buy in neighborhoods already facing a host of other issues. It leaves vulnerable communities, including the homeless, even more vulnerable. And it massively diminishes the quality of life for residents.
The 2018 Ninth Circuit ruling might have made judicial sense, but in terms of its community impact, it has been catastrophic. How do great cities flourish when large parts of their core districts have been given over to encampments? How do police and public health responders intervene when they have no legal powers to dismantle encampments?
In Sacramento, where I live, the answer is endless whack-a-mole. If residents in one neighborhood complain enough about the encampments, eventually the city finds some way to intervene. Suddenly, the street that one has been complaining about is cleared of tents. One sighs in relief, until one drives a quarter-mile further on and realizes these tents have simply relocated a few blocks and a few side streets away. A couple months later, encampments reemerge on the original site, and the whole sorry game begins again.
This isn’t in any way, shape, or form, coherent public policy. It shouldn’t be a left-right issue. The right wants the response to be all about law enforcement. The left wants it to be all about civil rights. But what about the ordinary, frustrated residents, the people in one Western city after another who just want to be able to walk or drive down the street in their neighborhoods without dodging one encampment after the next? And what about the homeless residents who have been left to their own devices by a political system that has utterly failed them, by both Democratic and Republican city councils and county boards of supervisors, and by state legislators, that have repeatedly found it easier to ignore this crisis rather than tackle it head-on?
Where are the systemic investments in mental health services, in drug treatment, and in affordable housing? Where is the political will to turn this crisis around? Where are laws establishing a right to shelter (like the one New York implemented years ago, which has resulted in far lower levels of on-the-street homelessness)? Where is the common sense that says all of the effort that went into rejuvenating downtowns over the past generation and making them flourish anew gets put at risk when huge areas of those same downtowns get turned into slums? In sum, why are the Western states caught so flat-footed on this issue, and why is the crisis of unsheltered homeless increasingly a geographic emergency of the American West?
One-third of all the homeless in the United States live in California, and one half of all the unsheltered homeless. More generally, in 2019 the Urban Institute calculated that in the US as a whole, for every 10,000 people, 6.3 were living on the streets. In the American West, by contrast—in California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico—that number was closer to 20 for every 10,000 people. Since then, the West’s housing crisis has only gotten worse.
Portland’s decision to build far more affordable housing by 2033 is better than nothing. But 2033 is 10 years away. California’s multibillion-dollar investments in housing interventions are necessary—but, to date, they have been implemented in such a haphazard way that to many observers they seem to be throwing good money after bad.
When the Blitz destroyed tens of thousands of homes in England during World War II, the government didn’t wait 10 years to get people made homeless off the streets; instead, it embarked on a crash course of public housing construction and, in the interim, the building and distribution of modular homes. Why can’t the United States today, with all of its resources, all of its technological ingenuity, all of its open land, muster the same willpower to house its vulnerable and to maintain the quality of its cities? Why can’t the great states of the American West, with their progressive values and vast wealth, work out ways to clear encampments and to provide proper levels of services to those currently living in tents, cardboard boxes, and wood-pallet shacks?
California Governor Gavin Newsom clearly has presidential ambitions. It’s beyond me how he thinks he’s going to convince voters to send him to the White House when he hasn’t worked out ways to even begin to clear the shanties from the great cities of California.