The Encampment State
Billions in spending have failed to solve California’s massive—and worsening—homelessness crisis.
Ask the average Californian his take on homelessness, and he’ll say that it’s gotten much worse. Back in the early 2000s, a visitor to Los Angeles’s Skid Row or San Francisco’s Tenderloin would have witnessed scenes of misery that seemed scarcely capable of further deterioration. Intense reaction against street conditions back then gave rise, in many California cities, to campaigns to end homelessness, prompting billions in new spending. But no California city ended homelessness; the average Californian’s impression is correct. According to the best data available, homelessness in California grew during the 2010s and is still growing.
It has also spread. Governments once aspired to contain homelessness-related disorder within the boundaries of forlorn neighborhoods like Skid Row and the Tenderloin. But containment strategies are now just as discredited as the goal of ending homelessness. Tents are everywhere: the suburbs, the beaches, riverbeds, beneath overpasses, urban parks, median strips, nature preserves, and sidewalks surrounding City Halls. The crisis’s dispersion has caused regional tensions, with neighboring communities trading accusations of dumping their homelessness problems on one another. To sort out inter-municipal disputes, and those between city and county governments, state government has had to step in. Since taking office in 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom has often identified homelessness as his top priority—another measure of the issue’s magnitude. Most states view homelessness as a local problem.
Public concern has intensified in response to the gruesome details that give twenty-first- century homelessness such a menacing character and that give California such a dystopian reputation in connection with it. In San Diego from 2016 to 2018, a homeless-encampment-related outbreak of hepatitis A infected hundreds, 20 fatally. In the early months of Covid-19, Los Angeles contracted with a portable restroom company to facilitate better hygiene among the street population. One employee of that firm was impaled in the hand by a syringe when cleaning out a handwashing station near a needle exchange. In April 2021, a dog was burned alive in Venice by a fire likely set by a member of that community’s unsheltered population. In January 2022, a dog attacked a security guard at the San Francisco Public Library when the guard tried to use Narcan to revive the dog’s owner, who had overdosed. This past December, a San Francisco toddler overdosed on fentanyl, after coming into contact with it while playing in a park. A June 2018 column in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Homeless Camp Pushes SF Neighborhood to the Edge” related how a two-and-a-half-year-old had “invented a game called ‘jumping over the poop’” and that “[a]nother kid across the street collected syringe caps and floated them down the stream of dirty gutter water for fun.”
Social media have been crucial in advancing progressive causes such as Black Lives Matter, but they have pushed in the opposite direction with homelessness. The notion that homeless Californians are just down-on-their-luck cases has been undermined by viral videos such as Michael Shellenberger’s interviews with street addicts. In one, posted in February 2022, “Ben” reckoned that less than 10 percent of San Francisco’s street homeless are from the city originally and that the majority have an addiction, and he explained how he supports his own habit through petty crime. A video posted on July 8, 2022, by a San Francisco–based Twitter user showed schoolchildren exiting a bus in the city’s South of Market neighborhood into what looked like a junkie zombie apocalypse. Californians understand that rents in their state are punishingly expensive and that some people who might have found housing elsewhere have wound up living on the street here. But why do they have to live on the street like that?
Homelessness hardens the heart. In a crisis jurisdiction, one cannot use streets and sidewalks without passing by—and thus ignoring—the obvious suffering of one’s fellow man. But the homelessness story in California today is not one of neglect. Policymakers have been trying to help, but their programs have yet to make much headway.
All three levels of government—city, county, and state—have recently expanded outlays on homelessness, much of it flowing through specialized agencies, such as the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing ($670 million FY22 budget) and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority ($800 million FY22 budget). In fiscal 2022, state government spent over $7 billion on homelessness programs. The public has directly authorized more spending on homelessness and low-income housing through several recent ballot initiatives: Alameda County’s Measure A1 (2016); Santa Clara County’s Measure A (2016); Los Angeles City’s Proposition HHH (2016); Los Angeles County’s Measure H; the statewide No Place Like Home (2018); San Francisco’s Proposition C (2018); and Los Angeles City’s Proposition ULA (2022).
Most homelessness spending in California goes toward giving people a place to sleep. This can be done on a short-term, intermediate-term, or permanent basis, and accompanied, or unaccompanied, by programmatic goals like sobriety and employment. Permanent supportive housing is the form of housing that progressive advocates for the homeless favor most. It provides a subsidized private apartment, whose occupant can stay there as long as he likes, provided he abides by the terms of the lease. The program is “supportive” insofar as the unit is linked somehow to social services, but with no expectation that tenants use those services or pursue sobriety or employment. Permanent supportive housing is not optimal for nondisabled individuals capable of something more than lifetime dependency; other disadvantages are its high per-unit costs, which have topped $800,000, and the glacial pace of development. The program’s main advantages are that some people unquestionably need it, and it’s reasonably likely to keep people housed and off the street, at least for a few years.
At the other end of the housing spectrum stands shelter. Unlike permanent supportive housing, shelter is short-term and provides minimal privacy. Accommodations are shared, often in a dorm-style setting. Shelter’s advantages are that it’s easier to launch in bulk than permanent supportive housing (or any other form of affordable housing) and, compared with living on the streets, people are safer and warmer in shelter. Providing shelter, at least to some degree, is a legal requirement for any city that wants to restrict sleeping in public. The disadvantages of shelter are that it’s temporary and that, however much government spends on it, some street homeless will keep opting for the freer, if more hazardous, unsheltered life. The weather, often overlooked in homelessness discussions, makes shelter less of a pressing need in famously temperate California.
In between shelter and permanent supportive housing are so-called transitional housing programs. The traditional understanding of transitional housing was a place where someone could stay on an interim basis—and a place that was sobriety- and/or employment-oriented. The idea was to stabilize people so that, when they finally landed a private apartment, their tenancy would go more smoothly than if they had moved in directly off the street. Progressives have long disliked transitional housing for its reputation for paternalism and because it’s not permanent. Of late, support for something like transitional housing has revived in California, as policymakers have scrambled for a program that’s more attractive to the street homeless themselves than shelter and easier to build than permanent supportive housing. Some tiny-home programs—small villages of units around 100 square feet, built out of shipping containers or through a prefab/modular construction process—operate like transitional housing. In contrast with traditional transitional housing, new tiny-home programs generally don’t enforce robust behavioral expectations, which remain rare in California homelessness programs.
Why have billions of dollars in homelessness funding achieved so little? Some blame Housing First, a philosophy that calls for solving homelessness through permanent housing and prohibits the use of any requirements, such as sobriety or participation in services, as a condition of receiving housing benefits. This philosophy stood behind various local-level campaigns to end homelessness. Sacramento lawmakers made Housing First a requirement of state-funded programs in 2016 (SB 1380). Housing First’s reach has an important cultural dimension. Support for it runs deep among homelessness professionals—academics who specialize in the subject, as well as the leadership and staff of government agencies and prominent service providers such as People Assisting the Homeless, public law firms like the ACLU of Southern California, and advocacy groups like the San Francisco Coalition for the Homeless.
Housing First’s reputation has taken a hit, though, from Los Angeles’s experience with Proposition HHH, a ballot initiative passed in fall 2016, with a “yes” vote of over three-fourths. The measure authorized $1.2 billion in bond funding for permanent supportive housing, mostly. But, as documented in a series of scathing reports by former Los Angeles City controller Ron Galperin, it took three years to open the first units backed by HHH funds, and, by February 2022, only about 1,100 units were operating, a rate “wholly inadequate in the context of the ongoing homelessness emergency.” Galperin also criticized the program’s costs, which average above $500,000 per unit. The HHH experience is not unrepresentative. A June 2022 Los Angeles Times analysis found several examples of subsidized housing programs exceeding $1 million per unit.
The old wisdom on Housing First is that it’s the most practical solution to homelessness, far simpler and cheaper than any alternative. But experienced politicians, such as Newsom and Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg (a former leader of the state senate), have become aware of Housing First’s gross impracticalities. Here’s how a progressive Housing Firster imagines success: an encampment emerges, community members object to it as a public nuisance, and government promptly provides the dozens or hundreds of inhabitants of this encampment with their own subsidized private apartments. Experienced politicians know that things will never work like that.
Housing Firsters believe in devoting maximum resources to permanent supportive housing, but if one scans the landscape of California homelessness programs, one finds many examples of funding going toward other priorities. In this year’s budget, state government will devote hundreds of millions of dollars to dismantling encampments; an August 2022 press release put out by Governor Newsom celebrated how “California Clears More than 1,250 Homeless Encampments in 12 Months” and featured pictures of the governor himself participating in cleanups. The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2018 Martin v. Boise decision prohibited cities from banning or tightly regulating camping in public unless they have provided their unsheltered population with an alternative to street-sleeping. Progressive advocates hailed Martin v. Boise, but it has led to more investment in shelters, which advocates see as a counterproductive diversion of resources.
The qualifications that California has had to put on its commitment to Housing First have resulted in strategic incoherence. What’s going on is neither orthodox Housing First nor some alternative philosophy that has replaced it. The reason: political conditions aren’t yet ripe for a full sea change on homelessness in California. Notwithstanding all the public outcry, the crisis has had only modest political repercussions. Beginning in the early 2000s, the once-mighty California GOP began an inexorable decline into irrelevance. The intensification of the state’s homelessness crisis, under Democratic rule, has done nothing to reverse that development. The attempted recall of Newsom in 2021 was more about homelessness than any other issue, but he handily defeated the effort. One recall candidate was Kevin Faulconer, Republican mayor of San Diego during the 2010s, who managed to reduce homelessness in his city at a time when it was getting worse everywhere else in the state. Yet, despite a compelling record on the issue of the day, he ran third among the contenders to replace Newsom, and far behind Newsom himself. Newsom coasted to reelection in 2022. Much like his predecessor Jerry Brown, Newsom has become a skilled practitioner of the politics of co-optation, throwing the occasional jab at far-left ideologues as a way of preserving the status quo.
At the local level, San Francisco seems better positioned to make progress on homelessness than Los Angeles. Stirrings of sanity in the City by the Bay include an August 2022 property-tax revolt among small-business owners in the Castro, fed up with disorder, and the success of two centrists (Joel Engardio and Matt Dorsey) in closely fought races for supervisor this past November. Most notably, voters recalled progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin in June 2022 and elected his more law-and-order-oriented successor, Brooke Jenkins, first appointed by Mayor London Breed, in November 2022. Though big changes should not be expected in San Francisco—Mayor Breed is another consummate co-opter—progressive hopes are on pause for now.
Los Angeles is in a darker place. Last year, two incumbent city councilmembers, Gil Cedillo and Mitch O’Farrell, both liberal Democrats, lost reelection bids to challengers endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America–Los Angeles and who campaigned on platforms of more accommodation toward encampments. Voters also turned out Sheriff Alex Villanueva, one of the last Southern California elected officials with a law-and-order brand and who had served, in county politics, as a vital counter against the irresponsible “defund the police” agenda of the Board of Supervisors. Lastly, Angelenos voted “yes” on Proposition ULA, thus authorizing higher taxes for more low-income housing and belying the notion that HHH’s disappointing legacy has somehow made the public ready to “starve the beast.” Los Angeles appears poised to become more progressive on homelessness and street disorder in the 2020s than it was in the 2010s.
California is host to half the country’s unsheltered population. Over the last decade, many encampments have taken on massive scale and acquired proper names: Ross Camp in Santa Cruz (about 200 people, dismantled in 2019); Echo Park Lake and the Venice Boardwalk in Los Angeles (200 people each, dismantled in 2021); in San Jose, the Jungle (300; 2014) and an even larger camp near the airport (500; 2022); Division Street in San Francisco (350; 2016); Wood Street in Oakland (200; 2022); Palco Marsh in Eureka (300; 2016); the Santa Ana Riverbed (“Skid River”) in Orange County (1,000; 2018); and the Joe Rodota Trail in Sonoma County (300; 2020). Scale attracts a criminal element and increases all manner of risks: infectious-disease outbreaks caused by deficient sanitation and hygiene, fires that threaten not only lives but also nearby energy and transportation infrastructure (most fires that the Los Angeles Fire Department responds to are homelessness-related), sexual assault, overdoses, and so on. The experience of public housing taught Americans about the hazards of concentrating poverty, but the average encampment is host to a far more troubled population than even the most derelict housing project.
A more common sight than the brand-name tent cities set up in parks or outside central business districts are smaller groups of tents, spread throughout dense urban areas. These lead to just as much public outcry because it doesn’t take many tents to diminish residents’ and businesses’ quality of life. No one, even if poor or mentally ill, should be allowed to take public property for his own private use via do-it-yourself eminent domain. Encampment cleanups are the democratic thing to do. Left-wing critics criticize them as a futile exercise in Whac-A-Mole that just shifts the problem around. But in the world of homelessness, success is relative. Building housing has not proved effective. Between 2015 and 2020, California expanded the number of permanent supportive housing units in the state by almost one-third (15,700), while the unsheltered count grew by 50 percent (40,000). Even if all that housing didn’t reduce homelessness, advocates argue, it prevented it from getting a lot worse. By the same token, however, cleanup proponents can argue that, absent enforcement, California would have on its hands even larger encampments—and in more places.
Homelessness is a housing problem in the sense that low-income Californians face a dire shortage of rental units within their means. Efforts to create more subsidized housing—both through mainstream affordable-housing programs and supportive-housing efforts targeted to the currently homeless—will continue. But in the short and intermediate terms, subsidized housing must be coupled with other approaches if California is to make any headway in managing homelessness.
Policymakers should keep expanding intermediate-length transitional programs as an alternative to both permanent supportive housing and traditional shelter. The next logical step in this expansion should be more sobriety-oriented homelessness programs, which remain overly stigmatized in California’s Housing First culture. More sober housing programs would provide homelessness policy in California with some desperately needed success stories. Sober programs also have a reputation as safer than programs with a laxer attitude toward whether tenants are using drugs or alcohol. Unsheltered homeless often cite unsafe conditions in shelters as one reason that they stay on the streets. To the extent that that complaint is sincere, sober programs can respond to it. They can also help repair “burned bridges” with friends and family. Someone who sticks with a program that has behavioral requirements sends an objective signal to former friends and family that he has changed. More “inclusive” Housing First–style programs cannot do that.
Above all, on housing, policymakers should try to stop the bleeding. They must make a determined effort to preserve what few low-rent (even if low-quality) housing options remain. Examples include board-and-care homes for the mentally disabled and SROs in San Diego, both of which have been declining during the recent era of rising homelessness.
Other specific steps should be pursued as well—including the repeal of SB 1380, California’s Housing First law, which it does not need. Some people are best served by permanent supportive housing or other “low barrier” programs, but many others are not, and this second cohort is now being neglected by state policies. Without SB 1380, many avenues would remain to pursue funding for permanent supportive housing, including ballot initiatives and city- and county-funded programs. In the homelessness context, California spends too much time debating process and administration. Often, what passes for a robust exchange is little more than city versus county versus state blame-gaming. Public officials should spend more time debating philosophy; taking up SB 1380’s repeal would be one way to pursue that end.
Another step would be to pursue creative litigation. Democracy suffers when courts, instead of elected politicians, make policy. But when faced with one-party rule and aggressive public-interest law groups, asking centrists and conservatives not to pursue policy aims via litigation looks like a request for unilateral disarmament. The LA Alliance on Human Rights is a private organization that, through the courts, has constructively pressured city and county government to expand both shelter and enforcement in Los Angeles. If nothing else, pro-public-order litigation may force the eventual involvement of the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the still-disputed parameters of encampment enforcement. (In late 2019, the Court declined to hear an appeal on Martin v. Boise.)
Finally, the criminal-justice system’s role in homelessness policy needs to be reaffirmed. Questions about law enforcement and homelessness tend to focus narrowly on camping regulations, but a larger context exists. Over the past ten to 15 years, California has pursued an increasingly progressive agenda on criminal justice. Examples include the passage of Prop. 47 in 2014 and the ongoing push to close Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, which would slash capacity in that county’s jail system by about 25 percent. It cannot be a coincidence that California’s criminal-justice-reform era has coincided with, per popular impression, the worsening of the homelessness crisis. More enforcement of all laws would help site new housing programs. A commitment to expanded, targeted enforcement around a new shelter or supportive housing facility would neutralize neighborhood concerns about disorder far more effectively than simply admonishing people to trust in social and health systems long notorious for their failures. Shutting down open-air drug markets in homelessness hot spots like the Tenderloin would improve conditions and may well make it easier to coax some tent-dwellers to accept services. This would require directing police to get more involved in social problems than many California Democrats now consider appropriate. But social work and police work should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.
California’s homelessness crisis may not have led to a political revolution, but it has engendered great distrust of government. The homeless themselves, as well as residents and business owners, have endured years of dashed hopes. Under-promising and over-delivering now seem like the most prudent course for government to take, but popular impatience requires at least some wins in the near term, such as the reclamation of trails and parks for public use. Good intentions long ago ceased to suffice. Enforcement actions will continue to be criticized as shortsighted. But excessive faith in solutions that proponents insisted would succeed has led to a legacy of broken promises and cynicism.
Top Photo: Homeless tents in downtown Los Angeles (RICHARD VOGEL/AP PHOTO)
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