California Needs to Think Outside the Box on Homelessness

California Needs to Think Outside the Box on Homelessness

California Needs to Think Outside the Box on Homelessness

Restricting encampments doesn’t get at the root of the problem.


As Western states deal with an unprecedented surge in homelessness, Los Angeles has made the news recently for two actions that approach the crisis from very different angles.

Faced with a growing public outcry against the proliferation of shanty-towns, spilling down one major thoroughfare after the next, the city council voted 11-3 to ban encampments within 500 feet of schools and day care centers.

Mayor Garcetti hasn’t said yet whether he’ll sign the measure, but given public sentiments on the issue—in recent years more than nine in 10 voters in the city have told pollsters that homeless is the most pressing local issue, and the combination of homelessness and fear of crime has had a potent impact on elections in the city this year—it’s hard to see how he could oppose it.

As the council debated the measure, protesters from the homeless community, as well as advocates, rallied noisily outside, calling not just for this policy proposal to be defeated but also for the revocation of other measures banning encampments around railway tracks, loading docks, libraries, and several other designated locales.

This is an issue that divides progressives. On the one hand, there is clearly a public safety and public health issue in play here, not to mention significant quality-of-life issues for local residents and businesses. On the other hand, California has dug itself into a hole around homelessness by failing, year in and year out, to build enough affordable housing, by releasing tens of thousands of prisoners without wraparound social services, and by under-investing for decades in mental health and substance abuse services. Banning the homeless from certain locations doesn’t really address these big-picture issues; it simply shunts the problem down the street a few blocks. It renders the homeless more out-of-sight-out-of-mind without remaking the social compact around housing.

That said, on this issue, I tend to favor a carrot-and-stick approach. Local and state governments must step up to the plate and implement fairer housing and land-use policies; at the same time, I think that cities, along with the general public, are entirely within their rights to want and to expect safe city streets that aren’t open-air bedlams, where people aren’t using streets as bathrooms, and where children don’t have to pass encampments of mentally ill and drug-addicted people on their way to and from school each day. I think Governor Newsom is on the right track in his proposal to create Care Courts that would both oblige counties to provide mental health services to the mentally ill homeless and also impose an obligation to accept those services. I don’t see how rallying in support of encampments—as if public shantytowns were somehow a good in themselves—rather than working to create meaningful policies to tackle homelessness and the on-the-streets mental health crisis is anything other than posture-politics.

LA seems to be stumbling toward this dual-track, carrot-and-stick approach. The same week that the council barred encampments near schools, it also debated a petition, supported by local unions and signed by more than 126,000 voters in the city, requesting that the city pay market rents to hotels to house homeless people in their vacant rooms, and that it mandate new hotel developments to replace affordable housing lost as a result of the new tourist-oriented land use. After a short debate, the council agreed to put the proposal to LA’s voters.

Over the coming months, hotel owners will undoubtedly put up a furious opposition—after all, housing the homeless next to paying hotel guests probably won’t be great for business, and hoteliers are right that they aren’t, and shouldn’t be expected to be, frontline social service agencies. It’s certainly not a given that the proposal will ultimately pass, once voters ponder its full implications. But pass or fail, at the very least it shows that the council is ready to start contemplating outside-the-box solutions to what has become a shameful humanitarian catastrophe on the streets of LA and other West Coast cities.

On the subject of hotels, earlier this summer the Los Angeles City Council approved the Workplace Security, Workload, Wage and Retention Measures for Hotel Workers ordinance. It kicked in on Monday, August 8, and contains a number of important provisions that ought to be emulated in other industries and other locales: It makes overtime work voluntary in hotels; mandates employers to keep detailed records on what work employees were required to do, in case employees choose to file suit on their labor conditions; requires that employers pay clearers double-time if they have to clean more than a designated number of square feet per day; and orders hotels to provide room staff with personal alarms, in case they are attacked by guests.

With this measure, Los Angeles has now joined a host of other Southern Californian cities that, at the urgings of service unions, have implemented stringent workplace protections for hotel staff.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with California, and a lot left to be desired of California’s political leaders, at the city, county, and state level. Yet at least these days they’re making a bona fide effort to tackle workplace safety issues, the housing crisis, and other major societal problems. This week, to take another example, the governor’s office announced the creation of the country’s largest college savings plan, which will give low-income children in the state up to $1,500 to seed their savings for college.

When California thinks big, as it is doing at the moment, it has the gravitational field to pull much of the country into its orbit. On a range of issues, the state is now moving toward social democratic priorities. That can only be a good thing for America as a whole.

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