Gary Horton | If You Feed It, It Will Grow

Gary Horton

Two discouraging numbers jumped out from the press last week: 10% and $56,000. Both involved L.A.’s No. 1 problem: Homelessness. Seems L.A. is poised for a potential hotel workers strike. Some 15,000 workers are demanding better pay, and for what they do, I hope they get it as our high cost of living is one of the drivers of this giant problem.  

But a potential strike is a serious problem for L.A. Mayor Karen Bass. The city’s largest homeless housing project is the downtown L.A. Grand Hotel, serviced by union workers providing cooking and cleaning services to our homeless population. If the workers strike, who will cook and clean rooms and change sheets for 480 previously unhoused guests at the L.A. Grand? 

Kevin Murry, CEO of the nonprofit Weingart Center Association, which provides L.A. Grand case management services, said Weingart is respectful of the workers’ need to earn a livable wage themselves, but “the clients need to be fed.” 

Indeed, it is true, everyone needs to eat … and some even get to be fed.  Murray’s choice of words may be telling of the root of our problem. Note that the L.A. Grand, while the largest, is just one of many hotels the city contracts with to providing homeless shelter under the city’s “Inside Safe” program. 

L.A. pays the hotel owners $154 per night per room to Shen Zhen New World I, LLC., the same company fined $4 million in 2022 for bribing corrupt L.A. City Councilman José Huizar. (Another story.) The problem is the math. At 480 rooms, the tab for just the room and board for each resident or couple is $154 x 365 = $56,210 per year. At 480 units, L.A. is paying $26,980,800 annually.  

As of the last census, the average per capita income in L.A. County was about $38,000. Average family income was just under $80,000. L.A. is paying more than the average working person EARNS for each room at the Grand. And this, before caseworker and overhead expense. 

 Some hard-working folks might consider this an afront. Those with financial minds might consider it insane. 

We’ve got 75,000 homeless, unhoused, urban campers, squatters, out there. If this same “solution” was brought to bear for all, the annual tab might range from $2 billion to $5 billion, annually. And despite all the funds collected from Measure H and Measure HHH, the taxes we pay don’t make a dent for this kind of profligate response. Homelessness in L.A. and L.A. County increased over 10% last year. We’re spiraling towards homelessness overload and insolvency! 

Measure HHH has only built some 1,000 housing units over five years. Project Room Key and Inside Safe house a few thousand, but at unsustainable cost. We’ve built an entire Homeless Industrial Complex, paying thousands of administrators, caseworkers, cleanup crews, and developers, and still our homeless numbers increase annually. Homeless response has become an L.A.-area financial fiasco. A serious do-over is required. 

Many countries have nearly zero homelessness. There’s too much public shame, the laws are too harsh, or culturally, even the down and out would never think to impose oneself on the public at large. We’ve gone exactly the other way. 

First, we begrudgingly tolerated a small segment of our city to become a “Skid Row.” Then, encampments began to pop up here and there, and we tolerated them still. Great Recessions and prolific street drugs and shuttered mental health facilities all combined to lure or pull more folks onto the streets. And we again tolerated what should have been seen as abhorrently wrong, mean, unkind, and socially destructive to all involved. 

Our toleration morphed to something even worse. We support homelessness. Some say we encourage it. Public camping laws are ignored. Homeless “rights” trump taxpayers’ rights to clean streets. Hundreds of shelters, food banks, soup kitchens, and now, hotel rooms are provided at no cost to a growing homeless population.  

We have normalized and enabled homelessness. We’ve inadvertently made homelessness “an option.” We ignore the criminality common with it. The homeless get fed, some get hotel rooms or new apartments, the bureaucratic overhead and delivery system gets paid, and developers and hoteliers get rich. 

By contrast, I’m reminded of the humble Quonset huts in vast use during and after World War II. These simple metal structures were used for everything from housing to offices to hospitals. Entire military bases housed G.I.s in these inexpensive yet efficient metal buildings. Returning G.I.s lived communally in Quonset huts until they found better situations. Locally, “Roger Young Village,” consisting of 750 Quonset huts built at Griffith Park, housed some 5,000 returning G.I.s and 1,500 families at peak. 

Our Greatest Generation was A-OK living in humble but efficient Quonset housing. Today, we’re paying $56K a year for free housing and food in hotel rooms just to temporarily get bodies off streets. 

What was good enough for our heroic soldiers should be good enough for our street campers and homeless. Our response should be to cost-effectively stabilize as many so they can move on in life. Some will require sustained help, and plainly, that’s a different response, requiring specialized facilities. But for most “campers,” basic, clean, functional, cost-effective remedial housing, built on a large scale, should be our response. Good enough for a solider? Good enough for a public camper down on their luck. 

In the end, our response must be to disincentivize homelessness. It must be illegal. One cannot “camp” in public spaces. If nothing else but for humanitarian reasons, we must consider homelessness as intolerable and respond accordingly. And our response should be to quickly build mandatory, affordable, functional, TRANSITIONAL living facilities, wherever and however it is cost-effective to build.   

Because we can’t afford what we’re doing and what we’re doing isn’t working, anyway. It should be, “Take what our G.I.’s got, or get clean and move back in with the wife, or make up with the parents, or call that distant relative, or move to Oklahoma or Mississippi and live off your Social Security, and that’s the available options – but you can’t stay on the street.” 

Enforce a humane and encompassing non-tolerance response for homelessness and homelessness will begin to take care of itself. Feed it, and it will grow. 

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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