The politics of homelessness are changing in California

With double-digit increases in homelessness throughout California this year, the politics surrounding the issue are finally changing, albeit slowly. Politico reports that the minds of some Democratic lawmakers are opening to new ideas:

State officials are weighing more aggressive tactics to deal with the escalating crisis of people with mental and physical illnesses living on the streets, downplaying concerns increasingly raised by advocates worried about potential breaches of civil liberties for especially vulnerable populations.

“The crisis is so bad people’s minds are really opening up and the policies are shifting,” said Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco. “Legislation that would have had no chance five or 10 years ago can pass.”…

A new state law authored by Wiener makes it easier for three counties to “conserve” — or take guardianship over — homeless people with several mental illness or substance use disorders who bounce in and out of short-term psychiatric commitments. California voters could weigh in next year on a proposed ballot measure that would sentence homeless offenders to treatment instead of jail time.

The ballot measure is called the California’s Compassionate Intervention Act (CCIA). It seeks to offer a middle ground between criminalizing homelessness and making city sidewalks a law-free zone. Here’s the description of what the CCIA would do:

Under the system, certain crimes, like defecating on public transportation or using heroin or meth in public, would be strictly enforced. However, a special court would be created in major counties to determine whether a person committed those crimes due to economic need, a drug dependency, or mental-health issues. The court would then “sentence” the defendant to an appropriate treatment plan: connecting the defendant to existing shelters and safety-net programs like general welfare, or requiring that the defendant participate in drug rehabilitation and treatment, or placing the defendant in an appropriate mental-health hospital with access to free prescription drugs. Once a defendant has completed this “sentence” (e.g., completed court-mandated rehab), the “conviction” would be automatically expunged, so there is no harm to that person’s record.

Unlike other approaches, which have sought to criminalize homelessness itself (too harsh) or have focused purely on the economic aspects of homelessness at the expense of ignoring crimes (too lenient), this initiative seeks a balanced approach. It recognizes that many homeless people need help, but that some aspect of encouraging people to get help starts with forcing the issue. It also seeks to return respect for law and order, since many people feel there is a double standard currently for crimes like indecent exposure.

But opponents have already condemned the proposal. In October a group called Disability Rights California attacked the proposal would create mass institutionalization:

Aside from a whole of host of constitutional and civil rights violations and the cost of creating a vast network of institutions, the measure is based on the assumption that the most critical concern with homelessness is individual’s visibility and their “nuisance behavior on our streets”. This measure suggests that sweeping homeless individuals out of our sight into institutions is the “humane” and “compassionate” way to address homelessness and care for people with mental disabilities. But, in reality, as the author bluntly reveals, the measure is intended to “help law abiding citizens enjoy the safe and clean use of our streets, and encourage respect for our laws.”

Clearly, DRC doesn’t much care about law abiding citizens being able to use the streets. The group supports a “housing first” approach to homelessness which has been adopted by many cities along the west coast, including LA. The problem is that housing first isn’t working out very well in Los Angeles. Despite the commitment to spend $1.2 billion on low-income housing over ten years, after three years the city has yet to open a single new home.

Some projects are in the pipeline but the expected cost is now more than $500,000 per unit. There are 60,000 homeless people in LA County. So if the County builds a home for all of them, that works out to $30 billion. And obviously the number of homeless people is not finite. When people in New York hear that LA is handing out $500,000 homes, you can expect some of them to relocate.

Reason published a video report today which makes the case that this housing first approach has been a failure because it leaves the majority of the homeless on the street. A better solution for the homeless and residents of LA would be more temporary shelters that would get more people out of flimsy tents on the sidewalks. But that approach currently has no political support. For many activists, a $500,000 home for every person is the only solution that’s good enough. The Rev. Andy Bales of the Union Rescue Mission tells Reason, “There’s this group that is so dogmatic about permanent supportive housing as the solution. And they think the only solution is the perfect rather than good.”

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