Romancing the Homeless

By: 
Al Jacobs

If you have been tuned in over these past several years, as have I, you are aware that homelessness is a national scourge. The most recent nationwide number of persons without a place to hang their hat, tallied in January of this year and continuing to increase, counted out to be 553,742.

And the state with the greatest number trying to find a bed each night is mine: California, with 151,278 – an increase of 39% over the past five years – and still on the uptick.

Unhappily, the homeless of today are not as unobtrusive as they were in an earlier generation. The Hobo Jungles, a place to eat, sleep and rest which graced the landscape during the Great Depression of the 1930s, were far less visible. During those years over a quarter million young men left home in hope and desperation and began riding freight trans or hitchhiking across America in search of a better life.

They usually worked on farms, picked fruit and vegetables, and did manual labor. With work finished, they looked for a place to sleep or rest. And with safety and comfort in togetherness, they traditionally camped in groups never far from the rails. Above all they avoided trouble as best they could by trying to remain as unnoticed as possible.

Today, however, homelessness takes on a different bent. Here in my area of Southern California it is not possible to avoid striking evidence of widespread civil disruption and discontent. In extensive parts of Los Angeles, the homeless set up what are referred to as tent cities in various residential areas. Under many bridges and viaducts they established permanent encampments. And semi-permanent shelters of one sort or another can be found in parks, on river beds and in the civic center area.

For a variety of reasons, the authorities seem unable – or unwilling – to enforce the various laws which might do away with these flagrant violations of city ordinances. And if what I understand is accurate, many other communities throughout the nation are experiencing similar occurrences.

While we’re here in the City of the Angeles, we must take a closer look at how the city officials are attempting to rid themselves of the homeless … currently at 36,300 on any night, and 16% higher than last year. They are considering placing restrictions on encampments, but have yet to make such a decision.

However, the city recently provided housing for those camping out along Venice’s Ocean Front Walk, at the west edge of the city, and sent in a cleaning crew to restore the beach. It would have been a more a favorable sign had it not been in response to the likelihood of a court order for exactly this action. And it’s not that Los Angeles is financially unable to provide such services; finances are allocated and the city is in the midst of spending $1.2 billion for this purpose.

Thus far we’ve viewed the past and generalized on what appears to be the current activities of the authorities in charge. Perhaps it’s time we zero in on some political leaders who are offering specific plans for permanently doing away with homelessness. Surely persons in positions of authority must generate some worthwhile ideas.

Our governor, Gavin Newsom, proposed a plan. Last year he called for a constitutional amendment to force cities and counties to house homeless Californians. Quite recently he finalized an agreement to spend $12 billion by expanding a program to convert vacant motels and other buildings into permanent housing. This includes a flexible funding stream to local governments at another $1 billion annually. Possibly this will be an improvement over the current cost of constructing homeless housing, which by 2020, according to the Los Angeles City Controller, rose to $531,000 per unit. Under these terms, what it might cost to house every Golden State resident without shelter is a number I prefer not to calculate.

Let’s now focus in on a prominent figure, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, one of numerous candidates hoping to replace Governor Newsom at his recall election on Sept. 14, who just unveiled his homeless plan.

If elected governor, Faulconer would use an executive order to form a state-run network of temporary shelters on state property and advocate the passage of what he describes as a “right-to-shelter law,” allowing local governments to prohibit people from sleeping in streets, parks and other public spaces after having been offered a shelter bed.

Faulconer’s proposal may seem to offer a relatively low-cost form of temporary relief from the antisocial homeless behavior now sweeping the nation, but it ignores a crucial reality. The many rules and restrictions mandatorily demanded of the homeless these past years are invariably rejected by them en masse.

The fact is many of them actually prefer homelessness to being forced into accommodations of any sort. This may be due to mental aberrations, of course, but it happens to be so … and no amount of psychiatric finagling will make a difference.

In combating our pernicious social evil, we may do better with an enthusiastic and aggressive crusader. A prominent headline in the Los Angeles Times announces “Hollywood mogul want to help combat homelessness.” The opening line of the article reports “one of the city’s richest residents, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, has begun meeting with local officials … to offer some ideas how he might help.”

During Katzenberg’s meetings with city officials, he presented numerous suggestions. These included “the city should not tackle every location at once, but rather focus on regulating the sidewalks surrounding the schools and parks” … “it is intuitively more important to allow children a safe place to play” … “[we should] act quickly on enacting limits where people can sleep” … “public officials need to show they are making progress to residents who taxed themselves in addressing the crisis.”

Although Katzenberg is busily engaged in meetings and public utterances, it’s uncertain what he actually intends to do. Several people who met with him weren’t sure exactly how he planned to tackle the crisis – whether through his philanthropic efforts or by backing political candidates and ballot measures.

The one thing he indicated during his meeting with several city leaders is he intends to “help to raise money to address homelessness.” He added: “If we can come up with something where we could use a few dollars and had something to target, I’m willing to put my own resources in.”

One thing is clear: Although Jeffrey Katzenberg claims no expertise on the subject for which he’s crusading, he does express enthusiasm and a willingness to assist financially. The problem seems to be the city, crucially in need of assistance, appears to have no capability of taking the actions necessary to resolve the problem.

To get a better feel of how homelessness might be tackled, perhaps it’s time we reach up a bit higher on the political ladder to see what Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator with 29 years of legislative experience, says on the subject.

As recently as April of this year, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and she introduced the Homeless Children and Youth Act, a nonpartisan bill to modify the way the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) functions to assist the homeless. Let’s take a look to see what impressive program she and her fellow sponsors envision.

As the bill points out, HUD’s definition of homelessness excludes children. It will therefore add them so they become eligible for HUD homeless assistance. This improvement will be credited to “eliminate paperwork and improve interagency coordination.”

The second provision will require HUD to score applications primarily on whether they are cost-effective. This will then enable communities to “provide assistance tailored to the unique needs of each homeless population in their community.”

And finally, HUD will be directed to “improve homeless assistance data and transparency.” In this way “communities will have a more complete picture of homelessness among all who experience it, enabling more accurate and effective responses.”

I can offer no comments on what I believe this senate bill will do to reduce homelessness in America, other than to say the legislative process is probably not designed to take forceful action in situations such as this. In any event, as a last resort, I went to Google to see what our president recommends as a means of tackling the problem. I slipped in my inquiry and the answer quickly appeared. The response: “We didn’t find any results for President Biden’s Proposals on Homelessness.”

A final thought: I see no possibility America will eliminate homelessness to any significant degree. Its root is embedded in poverty, although it is far more complex than this. Complicating factors include both mental illness and substance abuse. But perhaps the most irresolvable aspect of all is there is no recognizable financial benefit for whoever pursues its elimination.

This most likely explains why the homeless have always existed in our society … and I’m distressed to acknowledge will, in all probability, be with us forevermore.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al may be contacted at al@abjacobs.com

 

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