We Can't Just Wish Homeless People Away

By John Cyrus Smith

This is personal. It also affects all of us looking for real solutions to homelessness.

Someone in my family was homeless. He was mentally ill with a history of drug use. The turnaround came five years ago in part because of the care he’s received at the group homes he’s lived in since then.

The most recent one provided 40 men with beds, meds, meals and medical care. Most had some sort of government assistance or SSI to cover the modest cost. Without this group home, he and 39 others might be homeless.

Group homes are just one of many efficient ways to reduce homelessness at relatively low cost.

The sad part is this: He and those 39 other men just lost their group home. It was one of the most affordable housing options available to anyone anywhere in Southern California and now it’s gone.

Someone bought it and will probably tear it down and build pricey, market-rate housing in its place. In fact, developers and real estate interests are buying up these group homes and residential lots more than ever, thanks to SB 9 and SB 10.

These two new laws essentially make it legal (and profitable) to split one lot in two and build more housing units on each lot. Wonder why home prices are soaring? Why you can’t find your dream home? Why you keep getting outbid?

One big reason is bigger fish are now outbidding you and everyone else, thanks to state lawmakers such as Scott Weiner and Toni Atkins, who introduce and support such bills while raking in campaign donations from real estate interests.

But they’re not the only problem. A recent audit showed that the "affordable units" L.A. is building for the homeless cost up to $837,000 each. That’s absurd. You could buy four houses in some states with that much money.

Building costly units in pricey zip codes such as Santa Monica will never move the homelessness needle. Group homes, tiny homes, trailer homes and Conestoga Huts (search them on the internet) are so much more cost-effective and can house a lot more people a lot faster.

Another fast and cost-effective solution would be efficient arrays of quality tents, soft structures and basic facilities on surplus land in the valley, on the Westside and elsewhere. It was this strategy that was recently used to quickly move dozens of homeless vets off the sidewalk along San Vincente and Wilshire Boulevards and onto the West LA Veterans complex.

We need to start finding hundreds of places for hundreds of people at a time instead of just a few dozen. If Poland can take in 2.5 million homeless Ukrainian refugees over several weeks and provide every one of them a place to sleep, food to eat and care if they need it, Los Angeles County can and should be able to handle it’s 70,000 or more homeless people.

Truth is, homelessness won’t go away or get better until we manage it better. People with no place to go cannot simply be wished away. They are everywhere because they don’t have anywhere or somewhere to go.

We have to create more places for people and we have to do it for a lot less than $837,000/unit. A recent RAND study shows L.A. County could create more than 100,000 new residential units through the conversion of underused hotels, offices and other commercial buildings.

A recent audit by the California State Auditor also shows the Regional Housing Needs Assessments foisted on cities like Santa Monica contained seriously-flawed methodology when used to dictate how much housing our cities should be mandated to build. Such questionable methodology should be challenged instead of blindly followed.

If we want to solve homelessness, it’s time to start protecting group homes and create more of them. It’s time to buy every motel we can and turn it into basic housing. It’s time to buy under-used warehouses and convert them into hundreds or even thousands of mini apartments with shared, basic facilities.

It’s time to build larger tracts of tiny homes and trailer homes. It’s time to create a few tent towns on vacant city, county, state or federal land and create incentives for people to live there. It’s time to address the unintended consequences of laws such as SB 9 and 10 and Props 47 and 57.

And it’s time we stopped politicians from passing new laws that produce mostly expensive market-rate housing while lining their pockets.

Bottom line: It’s time to start realistically managing this crisis instead of pretending we can “solve it” by building our way out of it, $837,000 a person at a time.

As for our family member, we got lucky and managed to find him a new group home to live in. It’s not fancy, but it’s clean, safe, provides all the basics and most of all, it’s a “home.”

Time now for politicians to stop bragging about what they’ve done or plan to do and actually create some.

John Cyrus Smith is a Recreation and Parks Commissioner and former City Council candidate

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