|Rev. Andy Bales|
Photo Credit: L.A Weekly
DTLA—Los Angeles is facing a humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of individuals living on the streets and facing disease, unimaginable squalor and violence. Day after day we make excuses for our inability to effectively address one of the most critical and expensive crises our city has ever faced. Instead of tackling this issue head-on, our representatives are spending tremendous amounts of money to address only a small percentage of the problem.
While our idealistic plans of permanent housing for every person are laudable, they don’t address the urgent question that 60,000 people in Los Angeles County face each evening: Where will I sleep tonight? For those without shelter, that question is pressing. It should also be pressing for the rest of us.
Homeless Soars Again in the City and County
Approximately 75% of the 130,000 people experiencing homelessness in California have no place to seek safe shelter. Such a significant number of unsheltered persons has led to filthy conditions that spread disease. Crime by desperate and often mentally ill or drug-intoxicated individuals has increased. These conditions put all of us at risk.
The city’s current strategy — focusing almost exclusively on permanent supportive housing — takes too long, is too expensive, and addresses the needs of only 20%-25% of Los Angeles’ homeless population. We cannot continue down the path of believing there is only one approach for addressing this crisis. We need permanent supportive housing, and we need emergency shelter, and we need bridge and transitional housing. We need more and we need it faster.
Our failure to address the needs of all homeless people is both morally and fiscally irresponsible. We know that people living unsheltered face a significant threat to their health, safety and well-being, and that unsheltered living conditions result in a need for more intensive and expensive services. The cost of a one-time intervention to get a homeless individual into permanent housing is around $20,000. That increases to an annual cost of $20,000 in housing and services if that person is chronically homeless. This doesn’t take into consideration the tremendous expense in police, fire and medical services on behalf of chronically homeless individuals. We literally cannot afford to look the other way.
By no means are we suggesting that the current solutions are not good. We agree that the increased focus on permanent-supportive and affordable housing is important and necessary. When successful, it will not only provide homes to those in need but will also provide access to support services for a variety of conditions affecting people experiencing homelessness.
However, it currently costs around $500,000 to build each unit of permanent supportive housing. Again, this unwieldy amount only addresses the needs of about 25% of the population and it will take years if not decades to achieve. By contrast, Union Rescue Mission was able to build a structure just in the last few months with heat, air conditioning and case management 24/7 for only $10,000 per bed.
Recently, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg authored an Op-Ed that recognized the need for Sacramento and the state of California to do more, and to do it immediately. He makes clear that fighting the homelessness crisis is not a one-dimensional battle. Instead, it requires a creative and multi-faceted approach, and support from all areas. He is correct. Our solutions need to reflect the current state of the infrastructure, as well as the infrastructure we need to develop for housing and services solutions.
We need to empower city officials to enforce laws and regulations concerning people experiencing homelessness, and to facilitate the ability of individuals living on the street to take personal responsibility to seek shelter and services. We must be prepared to provide these individuals with safe and sanitary housing. Then we need to provide them with services that will incentivize them to stay — services such as job assistance, emergency health care and mental health support.
Waiting until we somehow have an ideal solution — a forever home for every homeless individual — is not an option. It is time for us to do more and we must do it now. We need temporary and permanent solutions for all people experiencing homelessness.
Getting people off the streets and into appropriate housing and services benefits all of us. It’s good for the person or family experiencing homelessness; it’s good for the neighborhood and the whole community; it’s good for business; and it’s good for our cities, our counties and our state. Our streets are for us to enjoy, not to be forced to avoid.
The alternative is that we allow the most vulnerable among us to wither and die while we sit on our hands. In one of the wealthiest and most progressive cities and states in the nation, that is unacceptable.
Rev. Andy Bales is CEO of the Union Rescue Mission. G. Michael Arnold is President and CEO of the Midnight Mission.