We need to stop using the term “homeless crisis.” It’s wrong, it’s not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy

Homelessness is a symptom, not a cause — As long as we keep treating symptoms we’ll never cure the underlying maladies — The real crises are addiction, mental illness, and lack of opportunities — But for the Homeless Industrial Complex cures are less profitable than “services” and “treatments” that keep people half alive, helpless, and dependent

Part 1: Paul’s story

In the summer of 2017 a homeless man took up sporadic residence in front of my building in Santa Monica. Let’s call him Paul. Several days a week around the same time in the early evening, Paul had what I came to think of as his “6pm meltdown.” He would stand on the sidewalk screaming horrific things at top volume. He was particularly fond of the n-word, which is bad enough in any situation but particularly awful considering my neighbors are a Black family with two young children. There wasn’t enough soundproofing in the Southland to smother Paul’s eruptions, so after the second or third instance I confronted him (should things have gone sideways I figured I had less to lose than parents of two young children). It was tense, as people experiencing psychotic episodes can turn violent, but thankfully the encounter was enough to discourage him from using our block as his forum.

Afterward I saw him around town from time to time. When he wasn’t enduring an episode he was a nice enough guy. An artist from Michigan, he said he had a good family but his mental illness reached a point that, “they just couldn’t handle it anymore.” He decided on California because “it’s the easiest place in the world to live like this.” He loved the fact that he could spend one day on the beach, the next in the park, and the day after that exploring downtown L.A. via transit. We had conversations about the creative life. He liked my dogs and they wagged their tails when they saw him – confirmation that he was a decent human being. A decent human being wracked by the demons that mental illness and addiction unleash, demons that led him to a long list of crimes, many of them violent.

A supportive new home – or a barren jail cell?

On the morning of Thanksgiving 2019 I bumped into Paul at the grocery store. He looked different, with a fresh haircut, new shoes, and a nice clean set of clothes (he was never particularly dirty, but I’d never seen him quite so put together). His eyes lit up when he saw me. “Chris!” he exclaimed. “I got an apartment!”

He threw his arms around me, and invited me to see his new digs. I was genuinely happy for him. What had begun as an ugly confrontation six months earlier had resolved in the best way possible, and during the holidays to boot. Housing, goes the prevailing wisdom, is the first essential step toward escaping homelessness and recovering some semblance of life. It makes sense: The best way to solve homelessness is to give people, well, homes.

I visited Paul the following week at Step Up on Second, one of many nonprofits that have sprung up over the last decade to provide housing and services to homeless people. Step Up owns an apartment building in downtown Santa Monica that provides permanent supportive housing to approximately 50 people. Residents, also called “clients,” receive an apartment and a food stipend and are offered services. Indeed the entire concept of permanent supportive housing rests on the availability of “wrap around” services, ranging from substance abuse treatment to talk therapy, group therapy, job assistance, even help navigating L.A.’s Byzantine social services network. Those services are the critical epoxy that holds the system together: Get people indoors and immediately address their underlying issues.

At least, that’s the theory. I visited Paul on a Wednesday afternoon. The Step Up on Second building is, as its name suggests, on Second Street in the heart of Santa Monica. On one side is a luxury apartment development, and other other are a trendy restaurant and bar. Across the street are two salons where you can get $80 Brazilian blow-outs, and Equinox gym, and law offices. In short, Sept Up on Second is in a seriously high rent district. You’d expect it to be a model of top notch professional care and services. You would be disappointed, just like I was.

I wasn’t exactly expecting Promises at Malibu, the infamous $80,000+ a month luxury detox resort to the one percent. I expected a bare modicum of resources and support available to society’s most vulnerable. The first thing I noticed was the absence of anyone at the door. I punched Paul’s number into the callbox and he buzzed me in. There was no attendant in the lobby, no one to check me in or out or even note my presence. I could have been carrying a backpack full of drugs, weapons, any sort of contraband into the facility and it would have gone unnoticed. I took the elevator up to the fourth floor, and walking to Paul’s apartment passed an individual I recognized from the streets, a man who spent his days hanging out, and often passing out, in front of the local 7-11. A jetstream of stale whiskey followed in his wake. So much for sober living.

All too often, “permanent supportive housing” is not supportive, rarely permanent, and barely qualifies as housing

Paul’s room was reminiscent of a county jail cell, albeit one with a galley kitchen and half bathroom. By “half bathroom” I mean a toilet and standing shower were directly adjacent the kitchen, with a curtain that you pulled around it for, oh, let’s call it privacy. There was a mini fridge, hot pot, and microwave (“they don’t want people here to have access to fire or gas,” Paul told me, explaining the absence of a stove top and oven). The walls were stark white, not so much as a Motel 6 style print to break up the monotony. Paul had taped a few of his own pencil sketches to the walls as decor, which somehow only accentuated the bleakness.

The worst part was that the only window was a small slit in the top corner, literally like a jail cell, and it looked out onto the rooftop deck of a restaurant and bar next door. Paul, an alcoholic who downed an entire six pack in the hour I visited, described how hard it was to fall asleep on weekend nights because of the noise.

My immediate thought was this was the kind of place you would put a homeless person if you wanted to drive them even more insane, to break them. What kind of monsters house a homeless schizophrenic alcoholic in a room overlooking a bar? Here was a man trying to recover some semblance of life, forced to live alone in a box and listen to people party and drink five nights a week. It would drive nearly anyone out of their minds. It reminded me of A Clockwork Orange’s Ludovico technique, when the main character Alex is forced to watch hours of ultraviolence in order to cure his ultraviolence.

The Homeless Industrial Complex’s approach to “treatment.”

For that matter, what perverse city licensing process approved a bar next door to a homeless recovery facility in the first place? It was almost as if they were trying to torture him. Paul said that while Step Up offered “some services” they weren’t mandatory and he had not availed himself. I can’t say that I blamed him – who wants to subject themselves to do-gooder social workers of the sorts who work for places like Step Up on Second? Even a schizophrenic knows better.

Ultimately, the end of Paul’s story was as sad as it was inevitable. He lasted less than four months at Step Up. In February I saw his picture in the crime section of the Santa Monica Daily Press. He had assaulted a woman on the street in broad daylight and was being held on $20,000 bail. The paper didn’t provide details but details aren’t necessary. He lost his apartment, and I have not seen him since. Wherever he is today I fervently hope he is finally getting the treatment and services he so desperately needs. Maybe he made it back to his family in Michigan and maybe they found a way to reconcile. I’d like to think so.

Part 2. Paul’s story is the story of homelessness in Los Angeles

Homeless activists say there are a million paths to homelessness. They’re absolutely right. Why do they insist there’s only one path out?

Paul is not a “homeless man.” Paul is an extremely sick person whose multiple illnesses ultimately resulted in a life of crime and homelessness. That’s not semantics or spin. Those are two fundamentally different paradigms that demand fundamentally different solutions. It isn’t abstract Algebra: A mental health and addiction crisis simply requires different resources than a homeless crisis. A homeless crisis can (in theory) be addressed by building long-term, permanent homes. In contrast, mentally ill and addicted people need immediate triage, regardless of what shape the roof over their head happens to take at the time. Waiting for tends of thousands of apartments that cost between half and three quarters of a million dollars to become available is like trying to solve California’s energy crisis by banking on cold fusion.

This is what the “housing first” model produces: The Missouri Place development in West L.A. received $40 million in public funding. “Low income” units will be offered to individuals making up to $70,000 a year.

Paul is an object lesson in the limitations of the “housing first” approach to homelessness. More than half of L.A.’s street homeless population suffer from mental illness, and half suffer from addiction. What’s more, it’s well-documented that just living on the street causes enough anxiety and stress to break people down emotionally. It’s safe to conclude that the vast majority of the people on the streets cannot care for themselves. A cell-like apartment won’t change that underlying fact.

Make no mistake: The only people benefiting from the “build, baby, build” approach are developers, nonprofits, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Just putting a roof over someone’s head accomplishes little to nothing. Indeed, as Paul’s case illustrates in many cases “permanent supportive housing” options are as bad or worse than living on the street. The longer an individual lives on the street the more difficult it is for them to re-acclimate to living indoors. Imagine how your far the average person’s mind has to stretch to adapt to life on the street in the first place. It’s delusional to believe a switch can be flipped just because they’re back indoors.

Paul is not an outlier, not by a sight. If anything he is the archetype of the modern Angeleno homeless person: From out of state, suffering from multiple mental illnesses exacerbated by addiction. He is often delusional, frequently violent, occasionally dangerous. He long ago lost the ability to live on his own, much less for an extended period. He is for all intents and purposes unemployable. Sticking him in a box with a roof didn’t help him one bit.

The lack of anything resembling home decoration in Paul’s apartment is what poker players might call a tell. For a couple hundred bucks they could have at least hung a couple of calming nature prints, maybe a Monet haystack. Apparently that’s a financial bridge too far for an organization whose CEO made nearly $350,000 in 2019. Two hundred dollars to marginally improve a vulnerable person’s mental state was beyond the reach of an outfit that took in $22 million in government funding last year. Another tell: $14.5 million of that $22 million went to officer, board, and staff salaries, with another $1.7 going to lawyers and other professional services. In fact, accounting for all expenditures on staff including travel and transportation, office space, supplies, Step Up spends the vast majority of its revenue taking care of officers and staff.

If the “housing first” approach is a failure, a lot of people are going to have to find new jobs

People increasingly talk about the Homeless Industrial Complex, and it is very real. It’s an unholy alliance of parasitic nonprofits, faceless bureaucrats, and grasping politicians. Put differently, it’s quite possibly the worst combination of resources to solve the problem. As a local business owner in Venice told the UK Telegraph, “The people camped out front my store are not looking for housing, they are looking for drugs and have made this place their permanent home. They sit out on lounge chairs during the day and ask people for a dollar so they can buy crack. These people are in need of help, help to overcome their addictions and help with learning basic life skills. You can’t just put street people in a home and think that’s it, that’s the answer.” Yet that is exactly what L.A.’s political class has spent some $3 billion of the people’s money doing.

Unless and until we wake up and start treating the underlying causes of homelessness, developers will keep getting richer, politicians will amass more power, and everyday folks will continue to suffer – both housed and unhoused.

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One thought on “We need to stop using the term “homeless crisis.” It’s wrong, it’s not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy

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