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Homelessness: Is Nothing Better than Something?

Thoughts for the New Year…

The best critic of my writing is my wife. She is far more empathetic than me, and often appeals to the better angels of my nature when I berate local officials for their manifold failures, She keeps me humble by reminding me nobody, including me, has all the answers to solve Los Angeles’ homeless crisis.  She reminds me it’s always—always—about 75,000 people who have no home. She brings me back to reality when I curse what is instead of what should be. One of her most effective questions is “What would you do”?

That question came up during one of our daily walks.  I’d just finished expounding on several news pieces showing how homelessness programs have universally failed to improve the lives of people on the street.  After I finished bloviating, she once again asked me “What would you do to fix it.”?  Frustration got the best of me and I blurted out, “Tear it all down and start over. Stop everything in its tracks and find people who know what they’re doing.”  She just smiled and asked how that could possibly work. I was duly chastened, but only for a while.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized my initial thought wasn’t so outlandish.  Think about what we’ve found out in the just the past few weeks:

  • The mayor’s claim that 21,000 people have been moved into shelters was undermined when the L.A. Times reported LAHSA can’t keep track of about a third of those who have been housed.

  • An LAist review of how LAHSA, the City and County track people in the homeless shelter system is so disjointed people may be double or even triple counted.

  • After 11 months and an expenditure of $67 million, only 255 people moved from Inside Safe to permanent housing, and there’s no telling how many of them will stay housed.

  • The City Controller reported LAHSA’s system to track shelter use and occupancy is so cumbersome, City employees resort to calling nearby shelters directly to see if there are vacant beds. As result, some shelters are overcrowded and others underutilized.

  • The same report found LAHSA doesn’t enforce contract provisions requiring shelter operators to update bed use at least once a day.

  • LAHSA’s nonprofit contractor HOPICS, which has received $140 million in government funding, has done such an atrocious job paying rent in subsidized apartments, hundreds of tenants, many of whom were recently homeless, have been evicted from their apartments.

  • According to the L.A. County Department of Health, fentanyl overdose is the leading cause of death among the unhoused, yet Harm Reduction teams do almost nothing to encourage people to join recovery programs.

Except at the individual anecdotal level, it is hard to find an example of any local government program that has had a substantial impact on homelessness or improved the lives of all but a small percentage of the unhoused. This litany of failure has been met with, at best, feigned concern by leaders.  Faced with a nine percent increase in homelessness from 2022 to 2023, Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, LAHSA’s well-paid CEO, said the results were “disappointing but not surprising”. Mayor Bass insists we must “lock arms” and “do better” but offers no concrete plans, except ways to funnel more money to developers more efficiently. County Supervisor, (and LAHSA Board chair) Lyndsey Horvath said the Country’s inability to deliver services to the unhoused is an “embarrassment” but the BOS has done nothing to hold providers accountable.

Pondering this fatal combination of incompetence, poor performance and apathy, I sought lessons in history.  I found myself rereading “A Stillness at Appomattox”, Bruce Catton’s Pulitzer Prize winning final book in a trilogy about the Civil War. He noted the Army of the Potomac began in 1864 with three respected Corps commanders; by the end of the war, none remained in command. Except for Winfield Scott Hancock, who left suffering chronic pain from a Gettysburg wound, the others were relieved because they didn’t meet Ulysses Grant’s expectations. In one especially relevant passage, Catton wrote of General Gouverneur K. Warren’s dismissal: “…it seemed very hard that Warren should be broken for mistakes and delays which had not, after all, affected the outcome of the battle. This was the first time in the history of the Army of the Potomac that a ranking commander had been summarily fired because his men had been put into action tardily and inexpertly. Sheridan [acting as Grant’s second in command] had been cruel and unjust—and if that cruel and unjust insistence on driving, aggressive promptness had been the rule in this army from the beginning, the war probably would have been won two years earlier.…” [italics mine]. Sometimes it takes hard, dispassionate decisions to get results. Perhaps if we had leaders with Grant’s unsparing drive for victory, we wouldn’t have 75,000 homeless people in L.A. County.

Getting back to my wife’s question, what would I do if I were in charge? (Bearing in mind there is no single person or agency in charge of the homeless program in Los Angeles, a fatal flaw in the region’s response to homelessness). I would gather all the executives in charge of intervention programs, from the County Department of Mental Health to LAHSA to HACLA and give them a very simple directive: using the available funding of $4 billion, in the next 90 days, come up with a realistic, actionable, coordinated, and practical plan to cut unsheltered homeless by at least 20 percent in one year. If you do not develop a satisfactory plan, you will be fired. If you do not achieve that annual goal, you will be fired. And I’ll keep firing people until I find ones who can do the job.  Abraham Lincoln fired several generals (one twice) before he found U.S. Grant.

The plan would breach organizational silos and process-oriented thinking and concentrate on results. Grant’s goal was destroying Robert E. Lee’s Army; he pulled resources from once-sacrosanct sources to put men in the field so he could achieve his goal. No amount of political howling distracted him.

I would prohibit blaming and dodging responsibility. No one would be allowed to blame “NMBY’s” for their failures. I would inform all nonprofits their contracts would be subject to rebid upon expiration, and new requirements would include key performance indicators and proof an organization has the resources to meet them. I’d hire the professional and support staff needed to monitor programs before implementation.

When confronted with the inevitable bureaucratic whining that would result, I’d remind leaders that New York City has one-sixteenth of the number of unsheltered homeless that LA does. Houston has significantly decreased its homeless population.  There are successful models right here in LA: Union Rescue Mission, SOFESA, and Solutions for Change. If they can do it, so can we.

If this plan would cause massive disruptions in current services, we need to ask ourselves if that would be such a bad thing.  Sometimes nothing really is better than something. According to a McKinsey & Co. study, about a third of homeless people self-resolve within a few months, so they really don’t need assistance.  Surveys from UCSF and RAND report as much as half of homeless people receive no services, so disrupting current efforts would be no worse than what they endure now.  At least a pause in current services would give people hope that what comes next would be better and actually help get them off the streets.

Or we can consider another option. According to the UCSF/Benioff survey of homelessness, and a recent study by the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, simply giving the unhoused regular cash payments improved their chances of being housed.  In the USC study’s case, 103 homeless people received $750 per month, or $9,000 per year.  The study found the recipients’ ability to stay housed and eat a healthier diet increased substantially.    If we gave each of L.A. County’s 75,000 homeless people a $9,000 per year stipend, the total cost would be $675 million, which sounds high, but its just under 17 percent of the $4 billion the City and County are spending in fiscal year 2023-24 on homelessness.  If the UCSF and USC studies are to be believed (and both are deeply flawed), housing costs are the main drivers of homelessness, which is what Housing First advocates have been telling us all along.

However, the same people who say housing costs drive homelessness are quick to caution us that simply giving the unhoused cash is no answer because many need restorative services like mental health or substance abuse counseling.  Advocates find themselves caught between conflicting stories: on the one hand, homelessness is caused by a shortage of housing and housing costs.  On the other hand, many of the unhoused need supportive services to reintegrate into society.  The idea of carving out $675 million for direct payments would surely bring howls of protest from advocates, even though $3 billion would still be left for housing construction and support services.  Advocates tell us the belief most of the unhoused—especially the chronically homeless—are mentally unstable or have drug abuse issues isn’t true, but they’re quick to smother that argument if it means losing funding for the myriad programs they operate.

Of course, giving unhoused people cash without support services would be a waste of money, and do little to alleviate homelessness. But it is certainly no worse than placing them in “housing”, alone and unsupported.  What is required is a coordinated and comprehensive response to homelessness that addresses housing and services. As I’ve explained in many previous columns, that system doesn’t exist in the tangled web of City/County bureaucracy.

So in deference to my wife and all of those who remind me its always about our fellow 75,000 residents who have no home, I will say that nothing really may be better than what we have now, and we must always strive to do better.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)


Tim Campbell

January 04 2024


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