LA POLITICS - By most estimations, the unhoused population of Los Angeles is about one percent of the total number of people in the City. On the other hand, about 63 percent are renters and 37 percent are homeowners, and there are about 244,000 businesses in the city, most of them small. For decades, we have been told the homeless are our neighbors and fellow members of the communities they live in. Yet, in the name of compassion, decency, or any number of other virtues, the unhoused have actually crowded out the other 99 percent of the community in many areas of civic life. The dominance of the unhoused has expressed itself in the social, economic, and political spheres.
It may seem preposterous to say the unhoused population has taken precedence over all others; after all, most of the homeless live in tents or RV’s, often in squalid camps that rival the Dark Ages for their living conditions. They lack health and mental care and are victims of crime at astronomically higher rates than the housed. But it is exactly those things that have caused the rest of the community to bend its norms to meet homeless advocates’ insistence that the unhoused “lifestyle” must be accommodated in our society. Homeless advocates have achieved their goal by using a combination of semantics and policies that ensure the unhoused stay where they are.
Consider a typical homeless encampment along a one-block stretch of sidewalk. First, advocates tell us the tents are the inhabitants’ “homes” and deserve the same respect as other housed people. Hence, the semantic change from “homeless” to “houseless”, with its inference that a home is merely a matter of definition rather than a physical dwelling. The tents become homes, and therefore the government loses its power to dispossess the unhoused of their “property” without due process. Now we see why it takes weeks or months to clear an encampment; service providers must make multiple trips to beg people to leave their homes for decent shelters. Cleaning crews (often dressed in hazmat suits to protect them from biological and chemical hazards) must catalog and store each “home’s” contents for later retrieval. These dramas play out on public sidewalks, which should be open and available to 100 percent of the public all of the time. Instead, it is now the exclusive domain of that part of the one percent who happen to pitch their tents at any location they choose, and it is up to the 99 percent to “respect their space.”
In economic terms, consider the cost of serving homeless “communities”. Advocates would have us call them homes, yet the inhabitants pay no property taxes nor utility fees, and often steal electricity and other services from the nearest source. The L.A. Fire Department estimates at least 54 percent of all its fire calls are related to homelessness. One percent of the population is responsible for more than half the city’s fire calls. Homeowners and renters pay for the services they receive; the solid waste charge on a typical homeowner’s utility bill is about $75. Yet the City provides regular encampment cleanups at no charge to the “community members”. Besides the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in direct homeless assistance, how many more millions are spent supporting the existence of homeless “communities”, often at the expense of services to the housed? In some neighborhoods, LAFD medical assistance is often tied up responding to a medical or mental crisis for an unhoused person, meaning other calls are delayed.
The City spends millions of dollars supporting small businesses, yet does nothing to keep the sidewalks in front of those business clear for customers. Many businesses have incurred the costs of repairing damage from multiple fires, break-ins and vandalism, just so the unhoused can live among the community.
In social terms, the proliferation of encampments has led to a narrowing of community life among the other 99 percent of the population. When a homeless person sets up a camp in the public sphere, he or she claims that space for his or her exclusive use. There is no more community use, just as the community has no right to use a private home. A tent encampment in a park denies the use of the park to anyone else. Derelict RV’s deny other vehicle owners precious parking space, and often result in pollution that must be cleaned at taxpayer expense. The housed must find alternate routes for errands or business trips so the homeless can claim their “personal agency” and decide for themselves what type of mental health interventions they need, while people out for a walk must guess if the disturbed person stumbling towards them is merely eccentric or truly dangerous.
If we are expected to accept the unhoused as full members of our community, shouldn’t the homeless live by the same standards as the rest of the population? If we are expected to keep our homes in decent repair and free of trash, shouldn’t the homeless do the same? If we are expected to respect our neighbors’ property, shouldn’t the homeless do the same, especially when that property is held in the public trust?
If the uber-rich made the same claim to exclusive use of public resources, the entire city would rise in anger. If a billionaire tried to build a mansion in the middle of a park, the City would never allow it. If the owners of the Wilshire Grand said only residents of the tower could use the sidewalk in front of the building, they’d be hauled into court. Yet the advocates at the forefront of the homeless industrial complex have so thoroughly monopolized the narrative, that to suggest homeless people adhere to the same community standards as everyone else is to be branded a hater or a NIMBY.
Ironically, the real victims of this narrowing of community are the homeless themselves. The advocates have created a system that perpetuates homelessness by insisting it is solely a housing problem, ignoring the very real effects of mental health, substance abuse, and heaven forbid, personal responsibility. Mayor Bass’ recent emergency declaration recognizes this realty, while at the same time applying the same failed Housing First remedies to the crisis. The advocates have reduced the unhoused to mere symbols, helpless children who must be told what is good for them, while they live in squalor, being victimized on the streets, until the advocates get what they want.
Perhaps the most tragic result of this narrowing of community is the suspicion and divisiveness it’s caused. Resentment is the natural reaction to being denied the use of an asset you once could access freely. And resentment leads to dehumanization. More and more people just want the homeless out of their communities without regard to their welfare. That, in turn, leads to divisiveness. If I just want an encampment cleared from my neighborhood, I don’t care if means moving to someone else’s. Residents argue over who should “get the homeless” as if we are playing a game of human hot potato.
By creating policies that perpetuate homelessness, and creating a huge economic structure built around sustaining a permanent homeless population, the City and County have only themselves to blame for the loss of community. Our government and our community must reset the entire narrative around homelessness by stripping away the semantics and pseudo-compassion and start talking about real solutions for the entire community, not what advocates think is good for the one percent of the population.
(Tim Campbell is a semi-retired public sector performance audit manager, who knows about successful and failed programs, a resident of Westchester who lives with the real-world results of years of poor policy decisions every day. He is a regular contributor to CityWatch. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of CityWatchLA.)