Fighting homelessness without building homes

A piece at McSweeney’s lists reasons residents do not want to build more housing near them:

Ending homelessness doesn’t mean building more homes because this town is full of homes already, especially mine, which is a single-family mini-mansion on an acre lot that I inherited from my parents and/or managed to purchase with the kind of job and bank terms and economic equality that don’t exist anymore for anyone and only ever really existed for well-educated white Americans. Either that or it’s a magnificent luxury condo with expansive views that I don’t want marred by more luxury condos or — god forbid — affordable housing.

Every room in my Instagram-worthy abode is either filled with clutter or rented out nightly to hipsters from another gentrified, monotone city also suffering from a homelessness crisis — this is a national epidemic, after all. I’m a good person, a generous person, and what made me the person I am is having to work hard for everything my parents gave me, and everything I will, in turn, give to my children.

Listen, I know that the unholy concentration of wealth in America is a big, big, problem, but so is having to constantly say no to people asking for change as I whizz into Whole Foods in my Tesla or Prius (depending on how my startup investments pan out). What’s the point of having all this money if I have to feel bad about it? Also, has anyone actually verified that the homeless people claiming to be veterans aren’t just pulling some elaborate fraud? I’ve never actually met a veteran and I forget for like, decades at a time that the military even exists because the bubble of privilege where I reside is literally impregnable, but I’m suspicious nonetheless.

I know we need more housing, but I was here first and I’m not giving up even one blade of grass on my water-guzzling, pesticide-leaching lawn or a single burner on my twelve-burner Viking range that I never actually use to house another human soul. Tough luck, homeless people. You and your allies can call me names but I won’t hear you over the lushness of my climate-inappropriate rose bushes and the stucco walls I’m paying some desperate immigrant under the table to build for me on the cheap before I low-key call ICE and have them deported.

I’m not sure this has to be tied to addressing homelessness; many communities and communities do not want to support cheaper or affordable housing. The public arguments may be couched a bit differently than what is listed above – such housing could affect the character of the community, lower property values – but one does wonder how much of what is written above is what is really behind the opposition.

Transforming LA parking lots into housing for the homeless

To help speed along a plan to provide housing for the homeless, Los Angeles is targeting the development of city-owned parking lots:

The idea of converting public parking to housing has been around for decades in L.A. but has gained little traction. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley proposed leasing rights to developers to build multifamily housing, but there was no follow-up…

The new parking lot review grew out of an urgency to implement Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by the voters to help fund the construction of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units each year.

With taxpayer funds now committed, a new obstacle emerged. The scarcity of suitable land in the city’s highly competitive real estate market could add years to the start-up time for new projects…

In almost every case, the scale of the project would change the character of a neighborhood, potentially bringing new life to aging business districts, but almost certainly stirring opposition in some. The strategy is getting its first test in Venice.

This is a clever way to jumpstart such a project – finding land is always difficult and the city already owns these lots – and one that is likely to encounter lots of opposition. How many businesses or residents next to these parking lots will desire these changes?

Yet, opposing the redevelopment leaves the nearby people arguing in favor of parking lots. This is not typically what people want to see: parking lots are visual blights, they may not receive much use, they include lots of traffic noise, lights, and pollution, and they are less preferable to nice buildings that help bring in revenue and improve the quality of the streetscape (and by extension improve property values). If a developer was to go into a typical urban or suburban neighborhood, very few people would be in favor of transforming an existing building or lot into a parking lot (unless that lot or building was a complete eyesore or vacant for years or some extreme case).

And if you can’t build housing for homeless on these lots, perhaps because of opposition from neighbors or because the lots themselves do not work for housing units, where else could you build?

San Jose residents don’t want tiny houses for the homeless nearby

Several cities have looked into tiny houses for the homeless (examples here and here) but residents in San Jose don’t like the idea:

But finding sites for the tiny home villages — which could house up to 25 people — proved to be a major challenge. The city looked for publicly owned sites that were a half-acre in size, near transit and with access to utilities. But after an outpouring of complaints, San Jose officials added even more restrictions — 100 feet away from homes and creeks and 150 feet from schools and parks, leaving just a handful of potential sites.

“It’s a shame that we didn’t have more viable opportunities from this list,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s acting deputy director of housing. “But we were constrained because land is so hard to find in this community. Some of the major concerns that we heard were about the potential impacts, from traffic to noise to new people coming into the neighborhood. We’re trying to be respectful of neighbors and the community.”…

“They’re almost segregating homeless families from existing neighborhoods and that’s not what San Jose is about,” Campos said. “If we can do this right and not give in to NIMBY-ism, then we set the path for other cities in California to address the homeless crisis in their own communities. This sends the wrong message.”…

But there’s push-back on those remaining sites as well. Councilman Johnny Khamis said at least 30 people came to his “open house” office hours last Saturday to voice concerns about the tiny homes site at Branham Lane near Monterey Road in his district. Residents were concerned about security and the “vetting process for the homeless,” he said, fearing crime, especially related to drugs and assaults, will rise.

How can a city address homelessness if few local residents want to live anywhere near the formerly homeless? Cities are sometimes criticized for sending the homeless out of town but it sounds like this could be an outcome here through restrictive options without officially sending them away.

There are several options available here but they aren’t that good. Homelessness, like many urban issues, is not just present in the big city but rather is a regional issue. Could multiple communities chip in? (Unlikely.) Perhaps the city could loosen their restrictions – such as needing a half acre of land – since these are unique housing units. (The neighbors might even be less happy if tiny houses are squeezed in smaller lots.) Try to shame the public into addressing homelessness? (Not a good long term strategy with voters and whatever shame might not be as compelling as the idea that their property values could fall.)

Addressing homelessness in wealthy Orange County

Suburbs in Orange County, California are working to address homelessness:

The vanishing benches were Anaheim’s response to complaints about the homeless population around Disneyland. Public work crews removed 20 benches from bus shelters after callers alerted City Hall to reports of vagrants drinking, defecating or smoking pot in the neighborhood near the amusement park’s entrance, officials said…

At the county’s civic center in Santa Ana, homeless encampments — complete with tents and furniture and flooring made from cardboard boxes — block walkways and unnerve some visitors. Along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium, whole communities marked by blue tarp have sprung up. In Laguna Beach, a shelter this summer is testing an outreach program in which volunteers walk the streets offering support and housing assistance to homeless people.

Cities across California — notably Los Angeles and San Francisco — are dealing with swelling ranks of the homeless. But officials in Orange County said most suburban communities simply don’t have the resources and experience to keep up.

Susan Price, Orange County’s director of care coordination, said officials are trying to build a coordinated approach involving all of the more than 30 disparate cities that takes into account the different causes of homelessness, including economic woes, a lack of healthcare and recent reforms in the criminal justice system.

With a location like this, the headline just writes itself: “While homelessness surges in Disneyland’s shadow…” Juxtaposition! Yet, this shouldn’t be a surprise in this suburban era. Fewer suburban communities and residents are far removed from what they may have once considered to be “urban problems.” The changes across suburbs in recent decades – more diverse populations, continued job opportunities though there is an increase in the service sector, higher housing prices (particularly in places like California) – have pushed many suburbs to consider new issues.

If Orange County does indeed enact a regional approach to homelessness, it could be a worthwhile study to compare the outcomes with those in the city of Los Angeles. Can wealthier suburban communities successfully address homelessness compared to cities who have addressed the issue for longer periods of time? (Success would not be allowed to be defined as moving the homeless elsewhere.)

Would cities consider tiny house villages to combat homelessness?

One writer explores how villages of tiny houses can address problems of homelessness in American cities:

Tiny-home villages for the homeless have retained the idea of everyone having their own tiny structure to sleep and find privacy in, but have, for the most part, consolidated bathroom, kitchen, and recreational space into one or two communal buildings with some combination of plumbing, electricity, and heat. In many ways, they are a multi-roof version of the old-fashioned urban SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel or boarding house, with separate bedrooms but shared baths and kitchen, that provided the working and nonworking poor with affordable living options in so many cities before gentrification turned those properties into boutique hotels or market-rate apartments…

In this regard, they may be solutions that not only alleviate homelessness, but also prevent it by creating more affordable housing. They provide an option below the lowest rungs of market rent, which in cities such as Portland and Eugene can start around $700. In the gap between such rents and low-income units (such as those subsidized by the federal Section 8 program), for which there are often long waits, homeless people often have no options except for shelters — which afford no privacy and, more vexingly, usually kick people out between early morning and late afternoon — or the streets…

They may sound prefab, but tiny-home villages, governed and operated at least in part by the villagers themselves, offer a modicum of safety, stability, warmth, cleanliness, autonomy, and privacy. The feds “have very high standards for [traditional] affordable housing and it’s quite expensive,” said Kitty Piercy, Eugene’s mayor, “so Opportunity and Emerald are ways for us to be able to help some people at a much-reduced cost.”

Add to that reduced fear and stress on the part of residents. “I don’t wanna live here forever,” I was told on a visit to Opportunity Village by a wiry, sweet-natured, 42-year-old recovering alcoholic who goes by the name Johnny Awesome. He was building a small greenhouse onto the front of his cheerful blue cottage, festooned with colored flags and a small disco ball. “This isn’t the top rung of society,” he said. “And the weather dictates a typical day here too much.” Sunny days found residents outside, gardening and building; rainy and cold ones found them holed up in their cottages or congregating in the 30-foot-diameter communal yurt containing computers with Wi-Fi, a large-screen TV, and a pantry.

As the overview goes on to note, this may not just be an issue of being able to build some tiny houses and forming a community. Rather, such villages raise larger questions that cities need to address. Are they willing to let some profitable land be used for such purposes? Where might they allow zoning for such villages? Are cities truly committed to affordable housing? Are cities willing to address the complex issues of homelessness rather than simply trying to regulate or legislate homeless people away? These are not easy questions for cities to answer as they all feel the need for more revenue and exciting new developments. Tiny house villages might be effective ways to address homelessness but they come with an opportunity cost of the land not being used for something else.

I wonder if there is a major city outside of the particular area profiled here – “So far, they seem to be occurring in and around mid- and small-size Western cities whose cultures have some mix of permissive, progressive politics and a certain pioneer DIY spirit” – that would be willing to run an experiment with such a community.

Persistent homelessness in the Chicago suburbs shouldn’t be a surprise

Homelessness is an ongoing concern for Chicago suburbs:

Advocates say her story reflects an ongoing dilemma for those working to end homelessness. The problem often is dismissed as an urban one, but thousands of homeless people seek emergency overnight shelter across Chicago’s suburbs each year. In DuPage County, nearly three-quarters of the homeless are from the county, officials said.

Although the number of people served by homeless support agency DuPage Pads has remained steady at about 1,400 people for the past three years, officials counted an additional 29 people who refused shelter this year in favor of sleeping in parks, building entryways and other public areas, said Carol Simler, executive director for the agency.

Many of these homeless people are affected by mental illness, substance abuse or debilitating health conditions. Yet stringent suburban law enforcement — which keeps homeless people from congregating or loitering — coupled with an increase in foreclosed buildings in some areas make the fringe group difficult to reach, advocates say…

In Lake County, 2,000 people receive assistance or shelter from PADS Lake County each year. Officials estimate that an additional 200 choose to sleep outdoors — a group that can be elusive, said Joel Williams, executive director of PADS Lake County.

A few thoughts:

1. Homelessness in the suburbs might be even more pernicious for those without a home because it is harder to access local services or they are less present. As this article notes, there are several organizations in the Chicago suburbs tackling the issue and the PADS organizations in DuPage and Lake County take advantage of the Metra lines or busing, respectively.

2. It shouldn’t be surprising in 2013 to see “urban” issues in suburban areas. For example, the number of people in poverty in the suburbs now exceeds the number in poverty in big cities. Or, see the recent set of articles in the Chicago area about an uptick in heroin usage in the suburbs. Yet, it is still common to see articles like this or reactions from suburbanites that say things like, “isn’t it strange to see urban issues in the suburbs?” It could be that there are still suburbanites who aren’t expecting these issues or who intentionally moved to the suburbs to get away from such concerns. Yet, I also wonder if this isn’t really code for something: this is really more concern in wealthier suburbs who would like to keep these sorts of troubles far from their borders.

Homelessness went down in last decade but not much coverage of this policy success

Here is a story you may not have heard: homelessness in the United States has gone down in the last decade.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a leader in homelessness service and research, estimates a 17% decrease in total homelessness from 2005 to 2012. As a refresher: this covers a period when unemployment doubled (2007-2010) and foreclosure proceedings quadrupled (2005-2009)…And what about the presidents responsible for this feat? General anti-poverty measures – for example, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — have helped to raise post-tax income for the poorest families. But our last two presidents have made targeted efforts, as well. President George W. Bush’s “housing first” program helped reduce chronic homelessness by around 30% from 2005 to 2007. The “housing first” approach put emphasis on permanent housing for individuals before treatment for disability and addiction.

The Great Recession threatened to undo this progress, but the stimulus package of 2009 created a new $1.5 billion dollar program, the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. This furthered what the National Alliance called “ground-breaking work at the federal level…to improve the homelessness system by adopting evidence-based, cost effective interventions.” The program is thought to have aided 700,000 at-risk or homeless people in its first year alone, “preventing a significant increase in homelessness.”

Since then, the Obama administration also quietly announced in 2010 a 10-year federal plan to end homelessness. This is all to say that the control of homelessness, in spite of countervailing forces, can be traced directly to Washington—a fact openly admitted by independent organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The article goes on to suggest why there hasn’t been much coverage of this success: homelessness is not much of a social problem in Washington or the national media. The social construction of homelessness as a social problem that should receive a lot of public attention either hasn’t been very successful, was never really attempted, or other social problems (like various wars on crime, poverty, terrorism, etc.) have captured more attention.

But, if all the numbers cited above are correct, it seems a shame that a positive effect of public policies regarding a difficult problem is going relatively unnoticed…