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A while ago, a church friend invited me to give a talk about homelessness at her local community group in Los Angeles. More than two dozen people showed up that night—much more than usual, my friend later told me. That night we squeezed into a living room and for two hours talked about how to best help the homeless in our city.
I was encouraged to see these young Christians express genuine concern for their homeless neighbors, but I could also sense their feelings of helplessness, frustration, guilt, and anger: How did we let things get so bad? Why don’t things seem to improve, despite all the money we’re flooding into the system? I’m not doing anything to help, but volunteering at soup kitchens seems like pasting Band-Aids over gushing wound—so how can I make a difference? How can the church help?
I share their feelings—and those feelings have magnified after seeing the most recent homeless count for Los Angeles: In one year, the number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles has grown 16 percent, and in LA County, it has grown 12 percent. We have at least 59,000 individuals without a home—59,000! That’s the size of a small city.
The report really isn’t shocking to us Angelenos: We all see the visible growth of homelessness in our city. But it is still incredibly devastating and disheartening. Many Angelenos feel duped. Last year alone, we spent $619 million on housing and services for the homeless. In 2016, we voted for a $1.2 billion bond to build 10,000 new supportive housing units in 10 years, and then we taxed ourselves an extra $355 million to pay for more services.
It’ll take years for us to see any results, and according to what city employees and developers tell me, we’re probably not going to meet our 10,000-unit goal. The city has begun construction on several housing projects, but many more are stuck in bureaucratic pipeline as construction costs continue to rise. Meanwhile, more and more people are sleeping on the streets.
The city has begun construction on several housing projects, but many more are stuck in bureaucratic pipeline as construction costs continue to rise.
Homelessness in LA has been decades in the making, so it’s not fair for people to demand quick, visible results. But it’s fair to expect more from our elected officials, especially when the homeless are dying on the streets in record numbers. Last year, 918 people died alone in the urban wilderness due to a mix of reasons including drug and alcohol-related problems, health issues, mental illness, and violence.
Mayor Eric Garcetti acknowledged in a public statement that the report is “heartbreaking,” then made the same promises he had made years earlier: We’ll spend more money, build more housing, provide more services. But so far, our elected officials are still moving too slowly, bogged down by bureaucracy, simplistic solutions, and sheer lack of courage. Their current plan to solve homelessness is unsustainable. For example, when each “affordable” housing unit for the homeless costs $500,000 and several years to build, it sounds to me like we need a plan B. There also aren’t enough incentives for developers to build more affordable housing—the one incentive we offer is a federal low-income housing tax credit program that’s so cumbersome and convoluted that most developers would rather avoid the hassle and build more luxury condos.
LA officials point out that we’ve housed more than 21,000 people last year. That’s cause for celebration, but after reporting on homelessness for two years, I can’t help but be skeptical: I know that many people who are homeless struggle to maintain housing due to an array of reasons, such as substance abuse, mental illness, rent increases, or relationship issues. More than half of those 21,000 people we housed last year are on some form of subsidized/supportive housing, and one-third of them are on subsidies that will eventually expire—what happens then? LA officials don’t like talking about that kind of stuff. They’d rather focus on homelessness being a housing issue, because then the solution is simple: Give someone a home, and they’re no longer homeless.
It’s not that simple. Homelessness is made up of unique human beings with uniquely complex issues and stories. You can give a dog a home, feed it, and walk it, and it will be happy. Not so with human beings, who come with trauma, personalities, flaws, longings, and eternal souls. Simply giving them a home won’t fix the many underlying issues of homelessness. How to give hope to someone who has given up on life?
One 56-year-old formerly homeless woman named Detroit recently texted me and said that after landing housing for about two years, her landlord sold the property and is now sending tenants notices telling them they have to move out. “I’m not the first person they’ve done this to,” she told me, referring to landlords who sell the building (or pretend to) or increase rent to an exorbitant price. “They did this to my husband. They just did this to my friend. They did this to my sister and she has nowhere to live.”
Detroit has been in and out of homelessness in Skid Row since she was 19, when she checked herself into a psychiatric institution. After the closure of public mental hospitals in the 1980s, she ended up on the streets and began using drugs to self-medicate. She says she’s been sober for many years now, and she knows many people like her who are also sober and desperately want to get out of street life but have no way to find affordable housing, no way to find a job that matches the high cost of living in Los Angeles. “The world has no idea what’s going on,” she told me. “I’m about to be back outside again. I’m scared.”
Every homeless person I’ve talked to knows about the $1.2 billion bond reserved for housing—and many don’t believe they’ll ever reap the benefits of it. There’s a lot of money to be made in this ecosystem of homelessness, they tell me: Why would anyone want to solve it? No wonder Detroit and many others have come to this depressing conclusion: “Nobody cares about us anymore.”
I don’t think that’s entirely true. I’ve met countless tireless citizens who organize and attend pro-housing/pro-shelter events, build tiny homes for free, cut people’s hair at mobile showers, mentor kids at rescue missions, pass out burritos to the homeless—whatever they can do to help. The problem is, it still feels like we’re chipping away at a glacier with toothpicks. There is little we can do to change things when the system in which we operate is so broken. So many do nothing, and feel guilty and ashamed for it.
Meanwhile, homelessness is also impacting the rest of us. I no longer enjoy taking walks around my neighborhood—who wants to step on human feces or smell that acrid stench of urine during their evening stroll? Today people are freaking out over claims of purported links between cases of typhus, typhoid, and other vermin-spread infectious diseases and the homeless population. How will that influence people’s perception of the homeless? Already residents are citing diseases, trash, and drug needles as reasons to oppose the creation of much-needed shelters in their neighborhoods.
I’m worried about the day our compassion runs out. And I’m worried about the day we give up on the homeless the way many have given up on us.