Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran an article on homelessness in Los Angeles. The article framed the problem of street vagrancy as almost entirely a result of insufficient housing. “The state needs to create 1.2 million more homes for low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness—which would cost roughly $17.9 billion annually,” the author, Jaime Lowe, reports. California needs to be smarter about building houses and apartments, but the facts Lowe uncovers don’t point to new housing as a solution to street homelessness.
The article zeroes in on Venice Beach, part of the Venice area of Los Angeles. Venice Beach is a once-gritty area that’s now “gentrified.” Except: it wasn’t that gritty. Twenty-five years ago, Lowe reports, the going rate for a house was $300,000. In 1996, the median home price in the U.S. was $112,000. If Venice Beach was ever the itinerant artist’s paradise that nostalgists depict it as, that was a long time ago. Today, the same house in Venice Beach goes for $2 million—a sign that its residents ought to consider some well-planned construction so that theirs doesn’t become a stagnant community.
In any case, though, such new housing won’t fix the homeless crisis. Nowhere in her 6,000-word article does Lowe find an example of the archetypal homeless person of casual understanding: a down-on-his luck, working-class man or woman who had a house in Venice Beach—whether rented or owned—and lost it after getting fired, having a spouse die, or suffering a disability or illness. That’s not to say that such cases don’t exist, but they’re certainly not the norm for the hundreds of people who have pitched tents and cardboard boxes or built plywood shanties along the beach, boardwalk, and sidewalks.
The homeless individuals featured in the article are all long-term transients afflicted with substance addiction, mental illness, or both. One young man tells Lowe that he came to Venice Beach from Washington State last year, “hoping for a new life apart from his estranged wife and children.” He appears to have no disability preventing him from working; he paints artwork to sell. He’s less a romantic artist than (likely) a child-support deadbeat who left someone else with the burden of making a living for his offspring. An older man, 64, says he’s been homeless for three decades, after “his family banished him because of his alcoholism.” The star of the story is a 19-year-old woman who goes by the name of “Angel.” She was recently arrested for weapons possession and recently refused government shelter inland, preferring the beach.
The story characterizes efforts to build housing for such individuals as facing a “fierce NIMBY pushback,” but it’s no mystery why Venice residents would oppose such measures as a 140-unit shelter building along the area’s main boulevard. It would be one thing if local officials could promise that after the area accepted the building, no one would ever sleep, defecate, or urinate on public property again. But nowhere does the article acknowledge that 140 new units—or 500, 1,000, or 10,000—in a resort town of 40,000 housed residents would not solve the problem. A beachfront community is by definition isolated from large employers in diverse industries. There’s little mass transit. This is a place where people buy property to relax or retire, not to invest in factories, warehouses, white-collar office buildings, or large-scale retail stores. Venice Beach is thus not the best place for a person with a short or nonexistent employment history and limited education to find an entry-level job and start to move up.
Venice Beach, then, faces not a displaced-persons problem but a transient problem. Owing to its nice weather, well-meaning volunteers who give out food and clothing, and Los Angeles’s lax approach to encampments, addicts and other lost souls are drawn there from around the country.
What kind of market housing could Venice Beach build that would be affordable to a 19-year-old woman with no job? The Times article is striking in its lack of curiosity about Angel’s background. A 19-year-old was a minor child not long ago. Where did she come from? If she could not live with her parents or guardians because of severe abuse, didn’t that town, city, or state have social services that would have put her into foster care or young-adult supportive housing and subsidize her college education or vocational training? Does her hometown have the same supposed severe housing shortage as Venice Beach does?
It’s dishonest to blame NIMBYs for this crisis or to paint local residents who don’t want to be harassed by vagrant men as somehow privileged. If Los Angeles does build subsidized, below-market housing around Venice Beach, why should that housing not go to people who already have stable jobs in the area, or who are interested in finding one—with a small fraction reserved for people who, at the very least, agree to start weaning themselves from alcohol and drugs, to learn skills needed for employment, and to pass each part of a mandated multistep program?
Rather than attempt to spend tens of billions of dollars a year to house the nation’s transients, California would be better off using limited resources to attempt to connect and re-integrate people like Angel into their home communities until they have the resources to start a new life by themselves. But to embark on such a strategy, Los Angeles would need a stick to go with the carrot. That could go something like this: the city will put you into temporary shelter if you have no other place to go, and it will get you inpatient mental-health and addiction treatment if warranted, but it will not offer transients with no long-term ties to the community any long-term housing—and no, you can’t live in a tent on a beach.
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