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Homelessness Isn’t Just a Humanitarian Problem

Virginia Postrel

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- California has a homelessness crisis, but Californians don’t agree about what it is.

To homeless advocates, social service providers, many politicians and most journalists, it’s a humanitarian problem — a social tragedy of rapidly increasing numbers of men, women and families living without shelter, vulnerable to crime, disease and degradation. This state of affairs, they believe, is a “moral disaster.”

For pedestrians pushed into the street by blocked sidewalks, women afraid of unruly men screaming obscenities, patio diners beset by panhandlers and homeowners discovering human feces in their yards, it’s an environmental catastrophe — the neighborhood equivalent of an oil spill. They want someone to clean it up and prevent it from happening again.

Both are correct. Any serious attempt to address the crisis must take both problems seriously. Activists who ignore, downplay or stigmatize the threat to public order are hurting their own cause.

The compassionate view overwhelmingly dominates press coverage and official statements. It defines the problem and the acceptable ways of discussing it. Consider a New York Times report on President Donald Trump’s trip to the Bay Area last month in which economics reporter Conor Dougherty editorialized:

In that light, local leaders have some real and reasonable doubts about how serious the president is about trying to solve homelessness. And Mr. Trump’s own comments on homelessness did not offer much in the way of reassurance because he seemed less focused on the homeless than their apparent victims, like California’s police officers — “They’re actually sick; they’re going to the hospital” — and property owners: “We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves.”

Most Californians in cities beset by homelessness would never vote for Trump, but he’s voicing their disgust and unease. People who pay their taxes, keep up their homes and consider themselves law-abiding feel besieged and unheard. Whatever empathy they may have had melts away.

“This is about people yelling and screaming at three in the morning and openly flashing weapons,” a woman told the San Francisco Chronicle after neighbors pooled money for large boulders to keep homeless settlements off their sidewalks. “I’m not rich. I’m having a hard enough time making it myself.”

Placed in the “furniture zone” next to the street, the boulders left room for pedestrians and complied with local codes. The public works department said they could stay. But pressure from enraged activists, who began rolling them into the streets at night, led residents to ask the city to haul the boulders away. “We traded criminals for activists and the media,” one told the Chronicle. “We don’t want to feel the fire anymore.”

Ignoring the public-order side of the issue has an ironic side effect. The chaos associated with homeless encampments appears to be fortifying a growing opposition to new housing intended to get people off the streets.

In November 2016, Los Angeles voters approved, by a 3-to-1 margin, a $1.2-billion bond measure to finance housing construction, mostly for the long-term homeless. After three years, the first building, with a mere 62 units, is scheduled to open in a couple of months. The city’s strong Nimby culture — and the political tools available to halt new housing — extends to efforts to relieve homelessness.

Opposition from local residents, including a lawsuit, has stymied a local nonprofit’s plan to build a mixed-use complex with 140 housing units, artist lofts and retail space on city-owned parking lots in Venice. Outraged residents of L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood blocked a proposed homeless shelter there. My own neighbors in West L.A., where the sidewalks play host to a growing number of homeless campsites, are trying to rally opposition to a proposed 50-unit building on a city parking lot — but you have to read their website carefully to realize that's the agenda. The lawsuits and protests, and the resulting delays, typify the drawn-out process that makes housing of all kinds so expensive in the state.

In response, public officials seem to be coalescing around two new approaches. The first is to exempt new homeless housing from the much-abused California Environmental Quality Act, which provides the basis of not-in-my-backyard lawsuits. Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a law known as AB 1197 that would do that for the city of L.A. The law applies to housing financed by specific state and local sources, including the L.A. bond initiative. It will provide a good test to see just how big a factor the environmental law actually is in giving activists a way to delay new housing.

The second, more radical, approach is advocated by L.A. county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and city council member Joe Buscaino. They want the governor to declare a state of emergency to streamline regulation and speed up building. They also want to establish a legal “right to shelter,” requiring local governments to offer a bed to everyone living on the streets — accompanied by a reciprocal obligation for homeless individuals to move indoors, like it or not.

Such an approach would be expensive, it might not withstand a court challenge, and it might not work. But it does have one clear virtue: It recognizes that the homelessness crisis affects not just people without places to stay but the neighbors who live around them.

To contact the author of this story: Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour.”

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