HOUSING AND UNHOUSED - Towards the end of the Civil War, a friend asked Jefferson Davis what he'd write as an epitaph for the Confederacy. He said it "Died of a Theory". He was referring to State's Rights, and how it prevented the Confederacy from acting at a unified national level during the war.
We could rightly say L.A. is dying from a theory… that being Harm Reduction/No Barrier Housing First. Devotion to this theory is killing our city literally and figuratively. Every day, an average of five homeless people die on our streets from overdose or exposure. News outlets regularly report unprovoked attacks from disturbed homeless people on one another and on others. The L.A. Times has published several recent articles on drug use, violence and overdose deaths on the Metro system. A recent article in the Times described the epidemic of overdoses in Skid Row Housing Trust properties.
The Confederacy spent most of its resources on a hopeless cause. Likewise, Harm Reduction/No Barrier Housing First theory is killing Los Angeles financially. Measures like H and HHH, and now ULA, burden residents with more taxes. Each time, proponents have promised the latest measure would be the solution to homelessness, and each time they’ve convinced voters just a few more million dollars pumped into the Housing First system would make it work. As the Times has reported, ridership on Metro has plummeted as overdoes and violent outbursts have become common. The Fire Department has spent well into nine figures responding to fires at encampments in the last few years. According to the Mayor’s emergency declaration, the city spends $1.2 billion annually on homeless services. That’s 10 percent of the city’s entire budget, dedicated to one percent of its population. The city currently spends about $25,000 per unhoused person per year.
Another thing the Confederacy and the devotees of Housing First share is a willful denial of reality, even unto the death of the thing they defend. In 1865, Southern politicians insisted States Rights were the key to the Confederacy’s survival, even as each state went its own way and US Grant closed in on Richmond and Sherman romped through Georgia. In 2023, advocates insist Housing First and Harm Reduction work, even as three bodies were being removed from a Skid Row Housing Trust hotel, and the organization went into receivership because it could no longer afford the cost of repairs from damage caused by tenants. In both 1865 and 2023, the worse the situation became, the more the advocates insisted further devotion to a lost cause was the only answer.
As in 1865, in 2023, most media outlets engaged in a bizarre game of doublethink, at once reporting the reality of the crisis while denying that reality existed. In 1865, Southern newspapers decried the loss of one state capital after another to Union forces, while praising Confederate devotion to States Rights, even as the men doing the fighting died by the thousands. In 2023, local media, especially the LA Times, parrot the Housing First position that homelessness is caused by a lack of housing, even as its reporters file articles about rampant substance abuse and untreated mental illness. Even though LAHSA’s own numbers show 70 percent of the unhoused have criminal records and well over 50 percent have mental and/or substance abuse problems, (a UCLA study puts it closer to 75 percent), the “homelessness is a housing problem” story is accepted as common knowledge. The myth that a sizeable number of homeless people are among the working poor is exploded by the fact that 84 percent are unemployed.
One key difference between 1865 and 2023 was the driving philosophy of the each extremist camp. In 1865, States Rights was a political philosophy that elevated the authority of each state above that of the central government, primarily to support slavery in the South. In 2023, Harm Reduction/Housing First is supported by two different but overlapping groups. First, there are the mostly left-leaning advocates who view homelessness as a consequence of unjust social and economic policies. To them the unhoused serve as useful symbols of economic injustice. One of the most tragic examples of this advocacy is the ACLU and other organizations insisting that the untreated mentally ill have “personal agency” in making decisions about their care.
The second group is as evil as their 1865 slave-owning forbearers. This is what many people refer to as the Homeless Industrial Complex: the cabal of developers, labor unions, non-profit organization executives, and a political leadership addicted to the money the developers offer. They use the homeless crisis as a huge cash generator, pumping millions of dollars into the hands of construction companies, trade unions, unaccountable service providers, and a huge government bureaucracy that should be overseeing the effort. Rather than solving the homeless crisis, it is in this group’s best interests to assure its continued existence. When a political leader challenges the Complex’s narrative, they activate the impassioned advocates from the first group to shout down and threaten the opposition.
In the late 19th century, Southern leaders invented the “Lost Cause” myth to justify starting a civil war. The myth says the South seceded to defend States Rights and a chivalric, (albeit flawed) idea of an economy based on landed gentry. Slavery was pushed to the background. Movies like Birth of a Nation and books like Gone with the Wind perpetuated the Lost Cause myth for generations.
The Homeless Industrial Complex got ahead of the game by transferring homeless mythology into its ongoing narrative, rather than waiting for ultimate victory or defeat. The homeless myth paints the homeless as helpless victims of fate, who have no responsibility for their situation. The myth flips peoples’ choices on their heads. Substance abuse becomes a consequence rather than a cause of homelessness. Housing will somehow provide the stability the unhoused need to manage their substance abuse or return to mental health. (Conveniently ignoring the “no barrier” part of Housing First means people are given housing with no commitment to use the services offered). Just as the Lost Cause myth portrayed slaves as largely satisfied with their lot, and slaveowners as benevolent masters, the Complex insists it knows best for the unhoused. They must be told what type of housing they need, and where it should be. They must be protected from oppressive government bureaucrats who insist they live in shelters instead of fetid tents. And above all, they must never, ever do anything to lift themselves out of their situations. They must wait until their enlightened advocates tell them its okay to move from squalid conditions in their encampments. Modern homeless advocacy has become a grotesque parody of the “white man’s burden” Lost Cause myth.
Just as States Rights caused the Confederacy’s destruction, the Harm Reduction/Housing First myth is encouraging Los Angeles’ destruction. According to the State Department of Finance, Los Angeles County accounted for 300,000 of the statewide decline in population of 500,000. That’s 60 percent of the loss. Among that number, many are educated younger people who are seeking a lower cost of living and higher quality of life. As younger workers leave, they take tax revenue with them. An older, economically stagnant population will remain to support the ever-increasing costs of homeless services. You need only look 1,500 miles to the east at Detroit to see what happens to a city when depopulation combines with increasing costs.
Financial collapse is just one consequence of the Harm Reduction/No Barrier Housing First myth. There are many other that would take more space than this article can provide. Our sense of community has been coarsened by extreme views on both sides of the crisis. Many people have become immune to the suffering we see every day. Worse still, thousands of people are left stranded on the streets, untreated, uncared for, unhoused, and dying of a theory at a rate of five per day.
(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program. He focuses on outcomes instead of process. The opinions expressed by Tim Campbell are not necessarily those of CityWatchLA.com.)