Wed, Jun

Why Does Mexico City Beat LA on Homelessness?


GUEST COMMENTARY - After concluding a busy, weeklong visit to Mexico City, I remain surprised that I only saw one homeless person living on the street. One.

Coming from California, that is unheard of. Mexico City has a population of 22 million people, the sixth largest in the world and five times larger than Los Angeles. And yet, the city has only about 30,000 homeless people while L.A. has more than 46,000 (L.A. County has nearly 76,000). If we were as large as Mexico City, our homeless population would amount to 350,000 souls on the streets.

Mexico City is an urban area with a per-capita income of $16,000, compared to roughly $70,000 in the United States. Los Angeles is a city of staggering wealth that has far more homeless people than our much poorer neighbor. If poverty is the cause of homelessness, why don’t we see more homelessness in Mexico?

How did L.A. accomplish becoming the homeless capital of the world? It was not easy, and it did not happen overnight. It goes back a long way. In 1981, then-Governor Ronald Reagan shut down many of the state’s mental hospitals. In 1995, the California State Legislature severely restricted local rent control by passing the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. But it was when the Great Recession cost so many Californians their jobs and homes that the homelessness problem got really bad.

Places like Mexico City regard shelter as a necessity and not a commodity. Property there is not traded like meme stocks. Based on what I saw recently and the facts of the matter, there is a massive amount of poverty in Mexico City, but relatively little homelessness. I can say the same for many of the poorest cities in the world that I have visited. There are not multitudes of people sleeping on the streets. People may live in a shantytown or even a refugee camp, but it is not quite the squalor of Skid Row in L.A.

Something doesn’t add up.

We are not victims of homelessness. California, in fact, manufactures it. We ensure that millions of people cannot afford to live in the place they have always called home. Californians claim to care, but we don’t care enough to throw the corrupt money-changers — corporate landlords — out of the temple as Jesus did. We need to overturn their tables so that the sacred need for shelter is restored.

Demagogues insult Mexico and other developing nations. However, when it comes to housing, they are the true winners. Millions and millions of Californians are losers while Big Real Estate seeks self-enrichment with no end.

What will it take for Angelenos to act? How bad do things have to get? Are we not already there?

It’s past due time for change. We need to advance rent control. California must hold Big Real Estate accountable now, not later.

We cannot hold our head high as Angelenos until we do much better and before we truly become a “Third World” city ourselves.

(Michael Weinstein is the president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global HIV/AIDS organization.)