Society's Response to Homelessness

Al Jacobs

The picture of a man sprawled out on a motel bed certainly attracts attention, but the headline of the accompanying article seems somewhat at variance. It reads: “No welcome mat for the homeless in parts of O.C.” The connection becomes a little clearer when you read the caption under the picture: “[name of the lounger] relaxes in the Anaheim motel room where he is staying courtesy of a 30-day voucher after the Santa Ana River encampment was cleared.”

For those of you unfamiliar with what this is all about, a bit of background will explain the circumstances.  On Monday, February 26, 2018, following prolonged conflict between Orange County officials and hundreds of persons permanently encamped along the Santa Ana River, the last of the 732 homeless and their belongings were moved to motels and other shelters in Orange County, California. The relocation, unanimously approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors at an impromptu meeting on February 15, decreed occupancy and other services would be provided at the county’s expense for a period of 30 days. The vote followed an acrimonious three-day period during which U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter presided over a lawsuit protesting an attempted clearance of the encampment then underway. The board’s action provided vouchers for up to 400 of the homeless to live in local motels for up to 30 days, as well as allocating $180,000 for food and other presumed necessities.

As we’re all aware, time has a way of passing. With the 30 days coming to an end, and with it the realization there were neither plans nor funds to deal with what might occur on the 31st day, the Board of Supervisors called for an emergency meeting on Monday, March 19, to wrestle with this seemingly unsolvable problem. By a stroke of good luck they came upon $70.5 million, dedicated to provide services for persons with mental illnesses, which became unceremoniously squirreled away some years earlier. With this discovery, the board quickly decided to create up to 400 new emergency shelter beds on county-owned properties. They chose to establish these tent camps on land in three upscale cities: Huntington Beach, Irvine and Laguna Niguel. Board Chairman Andrew Do proclaimed “We need to move ahead, and we need to have this capacity up and running ASAP.”

It didn’t take long for the Board’s decision to become known to residents of the chosen cities. Rob Howard, an office manager in Irvine, said: “This freaks me out. I moved to Orange County because I thought it would be a safe place. Now it’s getting more like Los Angeles … Who wants all kinds of unwanted people around you?” Anna Huang, a computer programmer in Laguna proved to be no more charitable when she declared: “When we think of a homeless crisis, we think of an urban environment that’s overcrowded and full of noise and chaos. You don’t think of it happening in a place like Orange County. I understand we should be sensitive to needy people. But definitely, I’m going to fight any kind of facility that’s close to our towns and kids.”

Perhaps the most understandable attitude of homeowners who will be directly affected by a homeless encampment in their vicinity was expressed by Mark Smith, a Huntington Beach renter looking to purchase a home near the Pacific Coast Highway, who remarked: “[The county] must understand they can use this money to go buy land elsewhere, maybe the Inland Empire, to relocate the homeless. We just can’t lower our housing values with this population nearby.” As might be expected, many Orange County residents say they support moves to help the homeless – as long as they are moved elsewhere.

Opposition to the Board’s plan – not unanimously enacted, incidentally – is not confined to those persons who foresee encampment of squatters living directly next door to themselves. Supervisor Shawn Nelson expressed a different opinion on the program underway, with the following comments: “I thought it made more sense to have a manageable plan before we start clearing the riverbed homeless population, but no one cooperated. Everyone points to somewhere else. Every community thinks we ought to solve this crisis, and every community thinks ‘Why not go to another spot?’ But we have to have a place for people to go. We are exiting these people out of the riverbed with no options for them, and we’re obligated to step up.”

You might note our nearby neighbor, the City of Los Angeles, is no stranger to homelessness. Perhaps viewing their success in ridding themselves of the scourge will inspire us. As far back as 2003, then-Mayor James Hahn appointed a panel of illustrious civic and elected leaders to end the city’s homelessness over the next decade. Although the panel, which included Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti, both to become mayors, met and formulated various programs, nothing of consequence occurred during the designated decade. Who knows why?

In 2013, as Garcetti campaigned for mayor, he vowed to “end chronic homelessness.” By 2017 the official count was 34,189, including about 9,000 who spend nights in shelters. Of the 25,237 unsheltered, Garcetti now claims he will get one-half of them off the streets by 2022 and all the others by 2028. Exactly how he will do this is not something he chooses to reveal.

The Los Angeles City Council is now also into the act, pledging as recently as March 20 that each Council member would back the approval of no less than 222 units of supportive housing for the homeless in his or her district by July 2020. Whether or not anything comes of this proclamation will be seen two years from now. In the meanwhile the agenda appears to be nothing more than business as usual.

What I’ve described as the approach to the problem of homelessness in both Orange County and the City of Los Angeles is in no way unique. The same sort of approaches taken here will be duplicated throughout the nation, with similar tales to be told in Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and New York. This is because both the causes and the political approaches are alike, regardless of location. Fundamental to this all must be the realization there’s no final solution to the homeless problem. It’s true that certain individuals without lodging may succeed in finding permanent shelter through their own efforts or the assistance of others. It’s also possible the multitude of programs contrived to end homelessness may encourage some motivated persons to better their lives in various ways.

Unfortunately, for many homeless indigents there will be no respite. Those individuals unable to conduct their lives in a sensible manner, whether due to repeated substance abuse, irrational approaches to the normal problems encountered in life, uncontrollable urges of all sorts, or the consequence of simple lethargy, will exist on the margin of sustainability. Homelessness is merely one of the events which occur. As you might expect, our elected officials will devise grandiose programs for interjecting significance into meaningless lives. Huge sums of money will be expended in an effort to alter human nature. And you may be certain there’ll be countless studies and reports providing statistical assurance of the success of such efforts.  Never doubt there’ll be a constant barrage of official pronouncements to assure us only failure to infuse additional funding stands in the way of complete victory over homelessness. If you express a contrary view, it’s clear you’re nothing but an impediment to progress.

A final comment: During my lifetime I served in several governmental positions, at both the federal and state levels, and during those years witnessed the way matters were handled and difficulties resolved. Let me suggest that if you’re waiting for government officials – elected or otherwise – to solve your problems, expect to spend an eternity in limbo. This is how society evolved and this is the way it functions.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view them on



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