Five years after Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure and a countywide sales tax hike to raise another estimated $355 million annually to solve its homelessness problem, there are more people living and dying on the streets than ever before.
Many of these men and women are both frequent targets and perpetrators of violence.
Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), who did not respond to our interview request, has partially blamed this failure on the pandemic, which slowed new housing construction and limited shelter capacity. It’s true that COVID caused a surge in homelessness, but the city’s plan was already failing.
In 2019, homelessness spiked 13 percent in L.A. County.
“This [was] happening way before the pandemic,” says Deisy Suarez, the proprietor of Desuar Day Spa in downtown L.A. “There [are] tents popping up in places that we didn’t see [them] before. It’s just getting worse and worse.”
The centerpiece of L.A.’s plan was to spend the $1.2 billion raised through Proposition HHH to build 10,000 supportive housing units over a decade. Even if the government were able to pull that off, it would merely put a dent in the problem in a city where more than 30,000 people are living on the streets and sidewalks according to the 2020 homelessness count.
Five years into the 10-year plan, just 14 projects are in service. Of the promised 10,000 supportive housing units, the city has completed fewer than 700.
It would take more than 30 years to house all of the people currently homeless in L.A. county at that pace, according to a federal court order.
As the homeless population exploded, some shelter providers implored the mayor to spend more of the money on immediate shelter, mental health services, and substance abuse treatment, but Garcetti went all-in on his ambitious 10-year plan.
Los Angeles’s approach to the homelessness crisis is a series of colossal failures. The city has proven itself to be incapable of “solving homelessness,” but it could take more modest steps to help alleviate suffering and restore peace and safety to the streets. It could also bring an end to many longstanding policies that caused these men and women to end up homeless in the first place.
“A Deadly Status Quo”
In a scathing court order issued in April, U.S. District Judge David Carter said that the city’s “inaction” is “so egregious, and the state so nonfunctional” that it’s “likely in violation of the [14th Amendment’s] Equal Protection Clause.”
L.A. has the largest unsheltered homeless population in America, and ground zero is a 50-square-block district known as Skid Row—officially turned into a containment zone by the city in 1976—where the problem has escalated into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. It’s a problem that’s rooted in misguided government policies decades in the making, but Carter’s order places blame for the city’s failure to address the immediate crisis squarely at the feet of Garcetti.
Carter criticized Garcetti for failing to declare a state of emergency, which he says could’ve eliminated bureaucratic hurdles to building new housing, and for his failure to spend a significant portion of the $1.2 billion that the city has borrowed on constructing temporary shelters, tiny houses, or even 3D-printed homes.
The judge ordered the city to put $1 billion in escrow so that he can monitor how that money is spent. He’s also ordering the city to provide shelter for the more than 4,600 people living on the streets of Skid Row before the end of 2021.
But the mayor has said Carter’s order will derail the city’s plan.
“Stay out of our way,” Garcetti said during an April press conference in response to the judge’s order. “Roadblocks masquerading as progress are the last thing we need.”
And his city attorney has appealed the ruling. L.A. County is asking to be dropped from the suit altogether.
“We Can’t Tell People It’s OK To Die on the Streets”
“I wish I could say I was shocked at the pushback from L.A. County and L.A. City,” says Andy Bales, who runs the Skid Row–based Union Rescue Mission, which runs entirely on private donations. The organization shelters more than 900 people a night and moves more than 900 people into permanent housing a year, according to its most recent annual report. Bales has been a fierce critic of the city’s approach, which he says has been slow, expensive, and capable of serving only a fraction of the homeless population.
Zach Weissmueller is a producer at Reason. He has produced documentary shorts, video interviews, and feature articles for the platform since 2010. Some of his particular areas of interest include the regulation of the internet and emerging technology, free speech, medical freedom, sentencing reform, and the drug war.