Will California house or hide its growing homeless population?

A homeless man pulls a cart heavy with belongings down a brick sidewalk filled with people.A
new federal homelessness agenda is targeting California cities. |
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“Evacuating” 150,000 people to distant sites would be akin
to internment camps, housing advocates say

Duane Nason thinks he has a solution for California’s rising
homelessness crisis. The software developer and web engineer
envisions a 300-acre property—similar in size to an amusement
park, he says—with high-rise apartment towers, on-site medical
services, and access to job training. Nason’s plan would create
what’s essentially an entirely new city the size of Berkeley, but
in rural California, with enough room to house the state’s entire
homeless population, which
currently numbers over 150,000
.

“The only way to come up with a complete solution was to build
a complete city,” he tells Curbed.

Nason, who has a degree in mathematics, says he’s been
studying the state’s response to the homelessness crisis for the
past two years. He’s confident that his plan for a “single,
supportive living environment,” which he’s calling Citizens Again, is the
best way to solve the problem because it would only cost $3 billion to
build—what he says the entire country spends every eight months
on homelessness responses that are largely replicated or repetitive
efforts. (The $3 billion doesn’t include annual operating costs;
he’s currently crowdfunding $50,000
to launch the project.)

At any other time, Nason’s proposal might be easily dismissed
as an overly simplified technocratic solution to a complicated
systemic social problem. But proposals for centralized facilities
like this for California’s homeless residents have been
gaining momentum
with local leaders—and their
constituents—who are increasingly frustrated by the slow response
to a snowballing crisis.

A vacant four-story mirror-glass building sits in the center of a large grassy lot, with warehouses for aircraft facilities in the background.Google
Maps A former
Federal Aviation Administration building
near LAX is being
considered by the Trump administration as a shelter facility.

Fairgrounds, decommissioned hospitals, and Caltrans properties
are just a few of the state lands that California Gov. Gavin Newsom
ordered
to be surveyed
for their potential to host homelessness
facilities last January. Now that
survey is complete
, with another executive order last week
immediately opening recommended lands as emergency shelter sites.
Similar uses for federal land and buildings have been suggested by
the Trump administration. In September, a group of federal
officials who
toured homeless facilities
in California were reportedly
considering a plan to relocate 10,000 residents of LA’s Skid Row
to a
vacant federal building
near the city’s airport.

Housing advocates fear that these moves mean a major federal
crackdown is looming—one that, due to the delayed implementation
of other solutions, will be not just welcomed but abetted by state
and local officials.

As of last week, at least one major California city, Los
Angeles, is cooperating with the federal government, according to a
statement from Mayor Eric Garcetti, who says the city is
working closely with the Trump administration
on homeless
solutions.

“We look forward to ongoing discussions that will demonstrate
how our federal and local governments can become strong and steady
partners in confronting a problem that affects cities across
America,” wrote Garcetti in a
letter
addressed to Trump and Housing and Urban Development
Secretary Ben Carson.

According to the
annual federal report
that compiles data from a nationwide
count taken each January, the number of people experiencing
homelessness in California during 2019 increased by just over
21,000, or 16.4 percent from the previous year, to about 151,000.
The increase was enough to offset declines in 29 states, resulting
in an overall increase of 2.7 percent nationally. The huge one-year
jump is being attributed to
skyrocketing rents
, which continue to outpace wage
increases.

Federal messaging about the homelessness report focused almost
exclusively on California’s numbers. “Increase in California
Higher Than All Other States Combined,” noted the
Housing and Urban Development press release
on the annual
figures.

President Donald Trump posted
several tweets
telling California officials to “clean up
their act” or he would “get involved.” Carson told Fox News’s Ed
Henry
that California cities should “uncuff law enforcement
so that people can be removed now and placed in transitional
places.”

In December, CityLab’s Kriston Capps reported that the federal
government is poised to take unprecedented action on homelessness,
with the White House
currently moving forward
on an executive order that would
require cities to remove street encampments and force homeless
residents into federal facilities—and take away housing funding
for cities that refuse to comply.

Last week, Garcetti confirmed the city’s leadership is
working
out a deal on homelessness
” with the White House, requesting
“potential federal land for housing and shelter development”
and “leveraged resources” for public health needs from Carson,
who tweeted
that he was looking forward to a “new partnership” with
Garcetti.

But Garcetti’s willingness to work with the Trump
administration has created uneasiness among advocates in light of
recent federal appointments.

In early December, the private consultant Robert Marbut was
confirmed as the director of the U.S. Interagency Council on
Homelessness, a pick that was
widely condemned by advocates
. Marbut is known for helping
cities create
large, centralized facilities
that require homeless residents
to move off the streets in order to receive food or services.

Proposals for this type of solution, known as “warehousing,”
have become more prevalent in recent months across California,
according to Matt Levin, who
covers the state’s homelessness crisis for CalMatters
. “I
think it reflects a growing but unspoken sentiment among residents
of even progressive places that warehousing-type solutions might be
acceptable if it means visible homelessness is reduced,” he tells
Curbed.

A rendering of a massive city in a rural setting shows tall apartment towers, a stadium and carnival rides, parkland and recreation facilities.Citizens
Again The 300-acre city proposed by Citizens Again would be
located in rural California to avoid litigation from homeowners
that has stopped other affordable housing projects.

The federal proposals are not dissimilar to some solutions being
discussed by local California leaders. In December, an Oakland,
California, councilmember proposed turning a
cruise ship
into housing for 1,000 homeless people, and
proposals have been floated over the last year to house homeless
residents in
military barracks and aircraft carriers
.

“We do need more temporary shelter options,” says Anya
Lawler, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and
Poverty, and a member of the governor’s homelessness task force.
“We need to get people inside.”

But how to go inside has to remain a choice for those
experiencing homelessness, she acknowledges. “What we’re asking
them to do is leave their community to come indoors and form
another community.” Traditional temporary shelters aren’t
always viable for people with partners, pets, or conditions like
post-traumatic stress disorder, she says. “It will only
exacerbate the challenges they’re already dealing with.”

Although no specifics have been provided by HUD about exactly
what kind of temporary shelter assistance might be provided to LA
and other places, homeless service providers speculate that federal
aid will be similar to what the state is offering: access to
federal land or property, funding for services, and resources to
build temporary housing, like the
sprung structures
currently used as emergency shelters in some
cities.

“I believe they will make federal lands available for things
like our sprung structure… immediate triage housing… and ask
local nonprofits to operate them,” said Andy Bales, CEO of the
Union Rescue Mission,
on KPCC’s AirTalk
.

But where exactly those structures would be located and whether
people would be forced to relocate to them are concerns to local
homeless advocates like Pete White, executive director of the Los
Angeles Community Action Network.

“The last thing you’re going to do is carry your butt out to
some remote area without any services, and without any of the
networks that have kept you somewhat together,” says White.
“Unless you’re talking about mandatory evacuations—and
that’s what I’m calling them, evacuations—people aren’t
leaving their communities.”

California cities are no longer able to criminalize sleeping on
the street, thanks to a court ruling last year that some local
leaders have said
impedes their ability to clear encampments
. In April, the Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses California, ruled in
the case of
Martin v. City of Boise
that “the government cannot
criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on
public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the
matter.” Late last year, the Supreme Court
declined to hear the case
, meaning the ruling stands—city
leaders can’t criminalize homelessness unless they can
demonstrate residents have access to adequate shelter.

White believes city leaders will respond to the ruling by
proclaiming it has built the adequate number of shelter beds, then

forcing people to move off the streets
and into those
shelters—or face jail time. “They would have you believe that
people would want to leave,” he says.

A
ballot measure
proposed by a former California state legislator
would create an alternate mechanism for funneling residents into
housing facilities by establishing a special court just for
homeless residents. Unhoused people would be sentenced to 364-day
stays in public hospitals or mental health treatment centers for
committing what are called “quality of life” crimes including
panhandling, public intoxication, and squatting. This could
technically be legal for a city to do as long as the city could
prove it had provided enough beds.

The state’s homelessness task force proposed a separate

ballot measure
this week that would allow the state to punish
cities for failing to build enough shelter beds. “Why would we
want to warehouse people?” task force member and LA County
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
told the Los Angeles Times
. “That was what was really in
advocates’ craw. They were not appreciating that we don’t have
to warehouse people.”

At the same time, the state’s slow response to building those
shelter beds may be speeding up. In December, Newsom
released an additional $650 million
in emergency homelessness
funding for cities that his administration claimed had been held up
by federal roadblocks related to HUD certifying the homeless
point-in-time counts. (HUD finally released the data on December
20, 2019, much later in the year than usual.)

But lack of money hasn’t been what’s stopped the rollout of
services in some California cities. In many cases, even though
state legislation has been introduced to
streamline the neighborhood approval process
, angry homeowners

fighting against the facilities
has been what’s
slowed the construction of shelters
.

A temporary structure hidden by a horizontal wood fence is shown in the foreground of gleaming glass skyscrapers.Brock
Keeling Navigation centers in San Francisco that use sprung
structures to provide shelter beds and services have been
delayed by lawsuits
from nearby homeowners.

That’s one way that a centralized proposal like Citizens Again
would save the state money and keep people housed longer, argues
Nason. Instead of going through the process of siting, funding, and
building thousands of new temporary shelters, he says, the money
and effort could be consolidated into a single permanent facility.
One of the reasons Nason believes it should be in a rural area is
to avoid pushback from existing neighbors.

But most of the state’s homeless residents live in dense
metropolitan areas, and plans that shuffle people to marginal areas
worry advocates.

“The Citizens Again proposal notes that ‘nothing like this
has ever been tried before’, which isn’t quite right—120,000
Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into camps in
rural areas during the Second World War,” says Tommy Newman,
director of impact initiatives for the United Way of Greater LA.
“The majority of people living outside last lived indoors in the
same community. Concepts like Citizens Again ignore this fact and
instead eviscerate any support network or family connections a
person might have, which is not how we’ll end
homelessness.”

Newman also notes that proposals to relocate people don’t
address what is currently some cities’ biggest problem: People
are falling into homelessness faster than they’re being housed.
Every day in Los Angeles County, which is home to the country’s
largest unsheltered homeless population, roughly 130 people are
housed, but 150 people become homeless, he says. “Our collective
focus should be on flipping that ratio by creating enough stable,
permanent housing that people can afford, not moving lower-income
people far away.”

The federal government exerts control over many of the programs
that
fund permanent housing
and make existing housing more
affordable. After a 2016 ballot measure increased funding for
supportive housing in Los Angeles by $1.2 billion, it took the city
more than three years to open its
first new project
. Cities need federal help to implement more
immediate solutions, advocates say.

“The fundamental cause of homelessness is lack of access to
safe and affordable homes,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO
of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who is
calling for the federal government
to fund expanded rental
assistance, construction of apartments affordable to the
lowest-income renters, and cash assistance to avoid evictions.
“$3 billion could pay for rental assistance for over 330,000
people who are homeless, an evidence-based and proven solution to
ending homelessness.”

At the state level, Lawler points to
$1 billion set to be earmarked for homelessness
in the
state’s annual budget, including a $750 million one-time fund
that would fund rental assistance, temporary housing, and services.
“For us, that’s a great sign because we’ve long argued that
we do need rental assistance for people at high risk of
homelessness,” she says.

At the federal level, however, Carson has attempted to
cut funding for rental assistance subsidies
in recent years.
He’s also succeeded in
rolling back Obama-era housing regulations
that address
segregation and discrimination, including an overhaul of the
Disparate Impact rule, which has been the
legal footing for housing discrimination lawsuits
for
decades.

Homelessness disproportionately impacts the racial groups those

anti-discrimination policies
were intended to help. A recent

New York Times investigation
found that African Americans make
up 8 percent of Los Angeles County’s residents, but 42 percent of
its homeless population.

White, who is working with LA officials to create housing
solutions for unhoused Angelenos on city-owned land, says
cooperating with the current federal government is like making a
“deal with the devil.”

“How can you have Carson, Trump, and now Marbut, and think
that’s going to lead somewhere good at the same time you have
children at the border being detained in camps?” says White.

Lawler understands some advocates’ hesitation to trust an
intervention from the federal government, which she agrees “does
not center civil rights at the top of its agenda.” But the
mandate from the state’s task force is clear, she says:
“Obviously for us the goal is to ensure that our extremely
low-income clients can gain access to permanent housing that is
safe, stable, and something that they can afford over the long
term.”

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Will California house or hide its growing homeless population?