There are no easy homeless fixes, which may be a good thing
Okolie Tagbo Cajetan.
Oct. 12, 2019
SACRAMENTO – One of the wonderful – and frustrating – things about living in our relatively free society is the authorities have only limited ability to tackle big problems. Because our system respects individual rights, the government can’t just boss us around. Its power is distributed among various levels and branches. And everyone has access to the courts, which tie up proposals for years.
This system is less of a well-oiled machine and more like one of cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s infamous contraptions, where insanely complicated gadgets complete the most basic tasks. His invention for cutting hair, for instance, involves pushing a button that sends a whippet after a rabbit on a treadmill, thus activating a lawnmower that skims a person’s hair.
This inefficient madness is frustrating when we want government to “do something,” but it’s a godsend when your property or freedoms are in the crosshairs. After the entire history of human existence, it’s safe to conclude that messy, pluralistic democracies do a better job protecting the rights of individuals and even fixing problems than countries run by strongmen. That doesn’t stop people from yearning for something easy.
Today’s column centers on a growing homeless population. “In Alameda County, the number of homeless residents jumped 43 percent over the past two years,” according to a New York Times report. “In Orange County, that number was 42 percent. … San Francisco notched a 17 percent increase since 2017.” It surged 16 percent in Los Angeles since last year. The homeless are more visible, as encampments and panhandlers seem to be everywhere.
Various governments are taking different approaches, almost all of them asinine. One new affordable-housing project in Emeryville recently opened with a price tag of $736,000 per unit, noted Marc Joffe, of the Reason Foundation, in a column in the East Bay Times. At that price, perhaps the state will house every poor and homeless person by the 25th century.
0President Trump has demanded that California officials “clean it up,” but hasn’t offered specifics. Trump’s points – blaming local governments for their failure and lamenting “horrible disgusting conditions” – are accurate. But the federal government doesn’t have a conclusive solution, either, and all the executive orders in the world won’t fix that.
Meanwhile, federal courts have limited the ability of localities to deal with homeless who turn public parks into putrid campsites. In the Martin v. City of Boise case last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that city officials may not remove vagrants from most public areas unless they offer them shelter. This “easy” solution will only make the problem worse because shelter can’t be built overnight.
People don’t even agree on the nature of the problem. Many liberals argue that the answer to homelessness is to give every homeless person a home, which ignores the enormous financial implications of such a promise. It also ignores reality. Many homeless have addiction problems or are mentally ill, so it’s not just a matter of housing.
Conservatives often take a simple approach, also. They want police to round up homeless people. It’s one thing to arrest homeless when they shoot up in public or refuse to leave a park, but wholesale roundups are costly and raise numerous liberties issues. Some people want to place mentally ill homeless people in mental institutions. That would mean a massive rebuilding of state facilities, which largely have been shuttered. It means other court battles. Fortunately, our society will never forcibly commit people without such legal tussles.
Joffe’s column, however, takes the prize for simple fixes. The solution “would involve placing large volumes of manufactured homes in low-cost areas” that would be sited in “economically distressed cities and towns or on undeveloped parcels in unincorporated areas,” he wrote. Translation: Wealthy communities would dump their homeless problem on the doorstep of poorer cities and rural residents. Instead of dealing with a problem they helped create, San Francisco and Santa Monica could simply bus their problem to Adelanto or Stockton.
Joffe raises (but doesn’t answer) the question of “whether the homeless should be obliged to take housing options they may not like,” but for this idea to work it would have to be required. Beach-area vagrants won’t willingly get on that bus to the Mojave. The courts would have to determine if cities can force the homeless to hop aboard – and how long and under what terms they can be forced to stay in the official encampments. What if all inland communities say no?
There are plenty of reasonable, albeit modest, approaches to the homeless crisis. For instance, cities can reduce building regulations and allow homeless facilities to be built on vacant land that’s now off limits to development. None of these ideas are quick, easy or satisfying, but that’s OK. Would you really want to live in a society where the government can round up thousands of people and ship them to the desert?
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