Thu, Jun

An Exclusive Interview with Homelessness Reformer Mary Theroux Re. Policies That Are Flawed and Failing  


INTERVIEW - Mary L. G. Theroux is Chairman of the Board of Directors, and Chief Executive Officer, of the Independent Institute and is an expert on homelessness.  Her articles have appeared in Forbes, Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Visión Hispana, Houston Business Journal, Washington Examiner, San Francisco Business Times, and the Huffington Post.

Here is our exclusive interview:

Homelessness in the United States is primarily in California accounting for 12% of the national population, but 35% of the unhoused. Why is homelessness centered in California?

Several factors contribute to this:

  • California’s propositions 47 and 57 make stealing and public drug use legal. As Dr. Drew, who I interviewed for our policy reportand documentary said, if you tell his patients that they can use drugs and get a misdemeanor (if that), they will come from every state. Plus, they can steal to support their habit.
  • California’s generous welfare benefits.
  • A culture of tolerance, and acceptance of lawlessness 

The City of Los Angeles has appropriated $1.3 billion dollars in its 2023-24 operating budget to address homelessness. That number has swelled while the overall population is increasing at a rate of 10% year-over-year. Homelessness spending now is an embedded ATM machine for these service providers who are not making any progress or dent in the number of individuals on the street. Why?

By law, California’s homelessness strategy mirrors federal policy of Housing First: that is, the idea that, since the problem is “homelessness,” housing will solve it. Thus, disproportionate resources are directed into creating extremely expensive housing. Recent affordable housing projects in LA clocked in at over $1 mm/unit. Studies estimate it takes up to 10 units of housing to decrease the number of homeless for 1. It’s a fool’s errand to try to build our way out of homelessness.

What is your impression of LAHSA, the hybrid governmental entity that is responsible for housing the unhoused?

See above. Putting people into (very expensive) housing doesn’t solve homelessness. There are underlying reasons for their homelessness and until those are addressed appropriately housing simply becomes a revolving door between the street and death.

Mayor Karen Bass has declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness in LA, but nothing changes. Assess her performance after 9 months in office.

Her primary tool has been a reprise of Project Roomkey, which had been a demonstrated failure under Mayor Garcetti: placing people experiencing homelessness in hotel rooms. Hotels are not care centers, and they quickly devolve into dystopian environments of untreated mental illness, addiction, and filth. In addition, isolating people using drugs in hotel rooms leads to increased overdoses. 

What should be the role of law enforcement regarding homelessness when much of the street crime is centered around these encampments here in LA?

Appropriate residential programs need to be established and encampments abolished. Police would then have appropriate options for getting those exhibiting unlawful behaviors off of the streets and into shelter or treatment. The model for this is the Haven for Hope campus in downtown San Antonio, which has facilities ranging from a sobering center to low-barrier shelter with meals, showers, and access to services, through long-term residential programming providing transformational services. Police can drop people off, know that they will be cared for, and be back on their beat doing their jobs. Haven likewise has extremely stringent security, keeping both those in their care as well as the surrounding community safe. San Antonio police officers told me that the neighborhood where Haven is located is safer than before it was built. 

Venice Beach has the second largest homeless population outside of Skid Row here in LA. What percentage of these transients are drug addicted, affiliated with gangs or out-of-state individuals who are not residents of California?

Since data is almost exclusively based on self-reporting, there are no clean numbers. Estimates range from 30 – 80%! 

What are the “hard and soft” costs of battling homelessness in a place like Los Angeles?

Who knows? There is no accountability, and costs are borne across city, county, and state agencies, business and property owners as well as the general population.

Should government cut out service providers given the unmitigated failure of their efforts as well as the cost?

As per the #1 homelessness policy recommendation in our peer-reviewed policy report, Beyond Homeless: Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes, Transformative Solutions: Direct resources based on demonstrated performance metrics and positive outcomes, regardless of the particular methods or approaches utilized to achieve success.

What cities or government agencies are decreasing their homeless population? What specifically are the best practices and why is there not a unified, national strategy that is implemented because it works?

San Antonio, Texas is an outlier in homelessness trends, and has been so over the past twelve years, due to its Haven for Hope transformational campus, that brings together every sector of the community as well as 140 non-profit service providers to offer a comprehensive, strategic solution to homelessness. An independent 501(c)3, Haven for Hope is featured in our award-winning documentary Beyond Homeless: Finding Hope.

Should there be a national database of the homelessness? To track their location, health status and their ability to be provided permanent housing? If not, why not?

Please see our policy recommendation #3: Improve tracking of program participants after they graduate from or leave programs and utilize quality-of-life performance measures and technology, such as computers/smartphones and electronic communication. This can help to address problems before they get to the point that people are forced to return to homelessness, and the feedback received can help to improve program design and services. These performance metrics should also be used to direct resources to successful programs.

The government of Alberta (Canada), for example, utilizes an app through which individuals report their outcomes and status. This prevents service providers from being able to “game” data, allowing for resources to be directed to programs with demonstrated successful outcomes.

How should cities address the RV challenge and mobile homelessness? Is this an issue with homelessness across the board or just something we see here in Los Angeles?

Communities should establish coordinated responses such as Haven for Hope, and then cities should enforce parking and trespass laws. If people wish to establish RV parks with appropriate hook-ups, security, etc., that can be a matter of private or non-profit enterprise.

There seems to be a tremendous profit motive for builders in the affordable housing, and homeless housing space. Can you build your way out of homeless crisis?

“Affordable” and homeless housing is incredibly regulated, as well as subject to numerous provisions, such as prevailing wage laws. Housing needs to be deregulated across the board to provide for housing to be built at every price point. Traditionally, affordable housing was used housing, not new, purpose-built units subject to numerous expensive mandates.

No, you cannot build your way out of a homeless crisis, as discussed above: for every unit of housing added, an additional 3-4 people become homeless. The “Housing First” vision of giving every homeless person a permanent home is an expensive fool’s errand.

What is your impression of the Boise decision, and should it be appealed?

A municipal government’s enforcement of applicable laws regulating the use of public spaces hardly constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Civil society requires that public spaces be reserved for their intended uses, not for unhoused people to live in. The shift of funding to “permanent supportive housing,” under the federal and state policy adoption of “Housing First” meant that shelters were cut off from funding, with the result that there is an extreme shortage. Meanwhile, following the Occupy movement, tents became accepted and widely provided in public spaces. San Antonio adopted exactly the opposite strategy concurrent with the federal shift to Housing First: directing private and public funding to shelter. The results are clear: unsheltered homelessness in San Antonio fell by 80% in a period that homelessness in California grew by 30%. Funding needs to be redirected to an array of shelter options and public spaces cut off from being places to “live.”

What are the first three things government must accomplish for a successful policy to combat homelessness?

Government can be a partner in combatting homelessness but is demonstrated at all levels to be incapable of successfully combatting it on its own. The coordinated Haven for Hope model, operating as an independent, transparent, and accountable 501(c)3 should be followed in every community, bringing together police, emergency medical services, hospital systems, mental health systems, and nonprofit services providers to collaboratively move in the same direction, in a community-wide model.

Please see our policy report or executive summary for our top 5 recommended policy solutions for both homelessness and housing.

  • Direct resources based on demonstrated performance metrics and positive outcomes, regardless of the particular methods or approaches utilized to achieve success.
  • Target the Housing First approach to those most likely to benefit from it. Housing First began as a program targeted primarily at those suffering from chronic homelessness, particularly single men and those with severe substance abuse, mental illness, or physical disability issues, and included the promised supportive services. It has since been expanded to become a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire homeless population, despite a dearth of evidence that it is effective for such purposes.
  • And, as noted above, Improve tracking of program participants after they graduate from or leave programs and utilize quality-of-life performance measures and technology, such as computers/smartphones and electronic communication. This can help to address problems before they get to the point that people are forced to return to homelessness, and the feedback received can help to improve program design and services. These performance metrics should also be used to direct resources to successful programs.

Name three individuals who are successful in tackling the issue of homelessness?

Haven for Hope grew out of Bill Greehey’s vision. There are other successful programs across the country, including Union Rescue Mission in skid row headed by Andy Bales, but Haven is unique in that it operates at scale, and has largely resolved the homelessness issue for an entire city. 

Grade Governor Gavin Newsom’s approach to homelessness. 

It increased under his watch as mayor of San Francisco and he has just continued to double down on a failed approach. Housing alone can not and will never solve homelessness.

Should President Joe Biden appoint a national czar on homelessness to coordinate spending and best practices? Should it be a cabinet-level position?

No. This is an issue that needs to be addressed at the community level. Federal policy simply exacerbates the problem and has corrupted non-profits receiving federal funding that dictates how their programs can be structured.


(Nick Antonicello is a thirty-year resident of Venice who covers the question of encampments and homelessness here in the community. Have an encampment in your neighborhood or street? E-mail Antonicello at [email protected]Nick Antonicello is a regular contributor to CityWatchLA.)

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