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Slow Views

Homelessness, a test of America and its leaders

Friday 10 September 2021

In places like LA, it was bad before. It’s worse now. The question is: how willing and able are US politicians to take care of their own people?


“My country goes around the world telling people what to do and here I am on the street. Born and raised in Hollywood. Twenty-storey aircraft carriers and this is how people live.”

Unless you have a ticket to Hawaii, LA is where America runs out – of land, living space and now compassion. The woman under the bridge where the 101 freeway crosses Gower Street wouldn’t give her name or age, but she looked about 60. Hands skinny and dark with grime, she was angry and incoherent most of the time but with bright flashes of clarity.

“This guy whose chair I’m living in?” she said. “He’s dead. Crohn’s disease. I’m sick of that shit. He’s been gone a month.”

Up the hill and a few miles west, the developer of America’s most expensive home was going bust. Nile Niami hasn’t found anyone willing to pay half a billion dollars for “The One” (nine bedrooms, 105,000 square feet and a séance room with live jellyfish in its walls) and he owes $156 million. But he’ll be okay. He’ll lower the price by maybe $100 million, and sell, and clear his debts.

There are plenty of people looking for that sort of bargain in California these days. The beautiful have done well in the age of tech and Covid – and the damned feel damned. 

On 23 June, the sheriff of LA County, Alex Villanueva, put on a cowboy hat and led a horseback patrol down the boardwalk at Venice Beach, where a homeless encampment had spread to the cycle path and up side streets lined with multi-million dollar homes. He vowed to clear the place by 4 July. 

Strictly speaking, he was out of line. Venice is part of the city of LA and dealing with homelessness is for the city not the county. But property owners didn’t care. In one of the most liberal zip codes in America, they rejoiced. They’d had it with the needles, the weird noises, the lowering of pants, the cratering of house values. “Everyone was waiting for someone to ride in on a horse,” Cari Bjelajac of the Friends of Venice Boardwalk told KABC TV. When someone did, “it was hilarious”.

Villanueva, who’s running for re-election, forced the city’s hand. By Independence Day, the boardwalk was pretty much cleared. 

When I went to live in Santa Monica nearly 30 years ago, they called it the People’s Republic of Santa Monica. It’s just up the beach from Venice and even more liberal. It had rent control, and I had a view of the Pacific for $800 a month. There was a big seasonal influx of homeless people even then, so I suggested to a friend on a return trip last week that the homeless “crisis” California has been living through, and obsessing about, was cyclical. ‘Twas ever thus. She shook her head and wagged a finger. No, she said. LA has changed since you were here.

It’s true. It has. A Santa Monica bungalow worth $300,000 then is worth $2 million now. Teslas are everywhere. Eco-aware homeowners have switched from grass to succulents. Wellness rules, if you can afford it. 

Downtown, Skid Row hasn’t changed – it was given over to the homeless then and it is now – but the people who used to be corralled there have broken out. “They’re everywhere.”

It’s a middle class refrain as if from a bad script, but accurate. Homeless people – “unhoused” if you prefer the New York Times’ formulation – now occupy every public space where there’s a chance of shade and the police have not yet moved them on. That means the default state of every bridge is a tent camp. Parking lots are taken over by people living out of cars. Encampments spread out from under every freeway interchange, and the LA River, which is actually a concrete channel, is home to thousands. 

In the year before the pandemic, LA County’s official homeless count went up 12 per cent to 66,433. There was no count last year because of Covid, but no one doubts the rate of increase went up fast. Overall, homelessness in California has risen by 40 per cent in the past five years and it’s concentrated overwhelmingly in LA and the San Francisco area.

There are four main reasons: a largely untreated mental health epidemic, the hangover from a national opioid crisis, soaring Californian housing prices, and Covid – which made hostels an infection risk and drove a spike in unemployment that put rent payments out of reach for a large cohort of tenants. Those protected by a moratorium on evictions won’t be from 30 September, and homeless numbers are expected to rise again.

Before that, homelessness could put the state governor out of a job. Gavin Newsom – handsome, folksy, a bit of a star – has earmarked a record $12 billion to address the problem over two years, but he faces a recall election next Tuesday because nothing he tries is working. 

One reason is zoning laws twisted out of shape by special interest ballot measures, which make it almost impossible to repurpose vacant commercial property as low-income housing. Another is that property prices are a rising tide. When LA does get clearance to build, one new housing unit for one homeless person costs more than half a million dollars.

$1.2 billion from a separate pot of money approved five years ago was supposed to fund 10,000 housing units. So far, 1,363 have been built. This week Vice President Harris flew west to stump for Newsom. Next week it’s Biden. Their endorsements aren’t working either. Newsom is trailing his Republican challenger.

America’s homeless typically drift west. A quarter end up in California but Portland (Oregon) and Seattle are magnets too. So is Silicon Valley. Apple has just finished clearing a big vacant piece of property it owns a few miles north of its new HQ in Cupertino. It spent an undisclosed sum making sure everyone had a flat or motel room to go to, and a case worker to help longer term. Like the other tech giants – and not unlike China’s billionaires, now being poked in the ribs by President Xi to redistribute some of their wealth before he does it for them – Apple has also pledged billions to statewide efforts to fight homelessness.

It isn’t rocket science. Utah showed how it could be done, starting in 2005. For a decade, its Housing First programme did what it said, giving people a flat, an address, the chance to work and save and start again. Homelessness fell by 91 per cent, then the funding stopped and the numbers doubled in two years. 

Homelessness is not just California’s or the West Coast’s problem. Like Covid, it’s a test of liberal democracies’ willingness and ability to take care of people. It’s a test that America, the most generous country in the world, is failing. 

Retreating from the bridge over Gower Street, I spoke with a colleague who told a story about a friend renting a flat nearby. When he told his landlady an encampment of homeless people had appeared on his street, she came round immediately, started screaming at them and called the police. When they arrived, she said she’d been attacked and the police cleared the camp. If you don’t scream and lie, she said, the police won’t act. And if the police won’t act, there goes the neighbourhood.

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images