Gary Horton | Ending Endless Homelessness

Gary Horton

This past week I had the joyful experience of sharing lunch with Stephanie English, our senior field deputy for Supervisor Kathryn Barger representing our L.A. County 5th District.  

Now, L.A. County isn’t just some abstract political blob. Taken by itself, L.A. County, with a population of approximately 10 million, is more populous than 40 other states.  

We sometimes forget we are. And greater L.A. County is also said to be the economic engine of the entire U.S. Sounds unbelievable, yet it is true. About 35% of all goods from abroad are delivered through our ports. We’re also the largest manufacturing center in the country. Not Chicago. Not Austin. Not Silicon Valley.  

L.A. makes things. Leading sports teams. Leading styles. Leading tech. Leading logistics. Leading manufacturing. 

L.A. makes things happen… Except eliminating homelessness.  

Sadly, while leading the U.S. in almost everything else, L.A. County also leads the U.S. in homelessness. Homelessness abounds all around. Entire homeless encampments, villages, and homeless mini cities defile our greater City of Angels. We’re a city, mostly of Angels, vexed with a curse of degraded humanity dragging themselves and ourselves far away from anything angelic. 

Like most large cities, L.A. and L.A. County are mostly blue, mostly progressive, and very diverse. Of our five supervisors, each who could be a full-on governor in many other states, Kathryn Barger is a rare Republican. My friend, Stephanie English, is a blood red Republican, conservative to the bone, but rational and a non-Trumpist. And during our conversation, progressive me and conservative Stephanie found far more common ground than not.  

Our lunch was a mini summit, of sorts. Red meets Blue. Consensus is hammered out. No yelling. No forceful overthrow of the county center. Just issues and related facts – and facts can be debated and discussed, and conclusions can be crafted, with compromise, if needed for consensus. 

That’s the way American politics is supposed to work… at least before our system was captured by the crazies of both the right and the left. Stephanie is a mainstream conservative and I am a mainstream progressive. There’s a lot of common water out in that mainstream… 

And the thing we agreed most on is our dire need for super-fast and super comprehensive action on L.A. County homelessness. 

We agree!  

Scratched far from our list of solutions are the ill-advised notions of opening all public parks to homeless encampments. Or forever renting motel units. Or building $550,000 two-bedroom apartments in prime downtown real estate. Or, worse – building 8- by 8-foot, plywood, $160,000 toy playhouses and calling these “houses” or “communities.” 

Or, creating one more giant bureaucracy of thousands of homeless industry technocrats, each with six-figure salaries and lifetime pensions after putting in their 20-something years of doing nothing to solve what they are paid to do. 

You would have liked to have been there. Conservative Stephanie and Progressive Gary agree most of our billions of homeless funds we’ve already spent are fully wasted, fully gone, with only another 10% increase in L.A. County homelessness to show for the effort. 

Our money has been squandered and our county and L.A. city approach to homelessness has been fragmented into ineptitude. Wasted. Opportunity blown. And all this will continue unless we finally address homelessness compassionately and with caregiving – but forcefully and determinedly. 

“Compassionate, caregiving, forcefully and determinedly.” Isn’t that a mouthful of conflicting word soup? 

While complex, there’s really two primary groups of homeless. There are folks who ran out of money, who perhaps suffered domestic violence, who got hurt or are medically ill, and want to get back into mainstream living, and just need a hand up. These are the “low-hanging fruit” of homelessness and can be intervened, helped and sent back on their way to productive lives gratefully. We can achieve this with an expansion of our existing better efforts and outreach. 

But, and it’s a big “but,” the far greater group have either drug or alcohol additions, or mental disorders caused organically, or by PTSD events. These folks are “long-haulers.” They don’t want to come back into organized life because organized life is regulated, and drug abuse and overt alcoholism and general craziness is not tolerated. Getting these folks a motel room for a week or a month is but a temporary distraction from a long-term problem. These folks need determined, law-enforced intervention. 

Stephanie calls it, “compassionate enforcement and intervention.” We have laws against loitering, camping in public spaces, against using drugs and alcohol in public. Our homeless migrate to where enforcement is weakest so they can live out their destructive lifestyles, which degrades themselves and the communities they invade. 

But this very, very small percentage of homeless Angelenos dramatically negatively impact the lives of the taxpaying and law-abiding. We need to protect the 99% of well-intended taxpayers, as well. It’s our duty to civility. So, in truth, we must enforce our laws and require an end to homelessness. 

But how? 

To legally remove homeless from encampments we must have someplace safe for all of them to go. We must build the solution. 

We must build or convert existing large facilities into homeless housing centers, designed to provide compassionate care for the range of needs of varied homeless people. For the extreme addicted and the mentally ill to folks just needing to get cleaned up and reconnected with family or friends. Tens of thousands of units are required, with thousands of trained caregivers, mental health professionals, drug counselors and police.  

Picture facilities offering levels of care and public access, including intense protected medical facilities for the violent or deranged. More social settings for those who demonstrate the ability to socialize without use of drugs. Outside access for those exhibiting individual responsibility. And a return to full outside access for those with personal responsibility. 

And finally, when demonstrated, a return to family or friends or work and living on their own again. 

And throughout it all, compassionate caregiving, training and health care are paramount. Still, everyone remains on the inside until they’ve learned and earned the skills to return to the outside. Call this “mental health hospitals.” Call it “social recovery centers.” Call it whatever you want, but anyone with a soul will call this getting vulnerable folks off streets into purposeful centers where they are cared for to recover to whatever level of full health and balance they can achieve. 

And what if they, or any others return to the streets? Why, it’s illegal, of course! Not allowed. No longer tolerated at all. All homeless go back to a warm bed, good food and social/medical counseling, as best as required and we can afford. 

It’s a drastic and dramatic solution. But our never-ending homeless challenge is drastic, also. 

Compassionate enforcement and care. We’re our brother’s keeper while keeping our cities safe and clean. 

Anything else is to either burn our money or worse – to allow suffering humans to literally decay and die all around us.  

We must forcefully intervene. And mainstream anyone can agree on most these points. So, let’s cut the red tape and get this done! 

 Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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