Some have asked for my thoughts about Mark Lipman’s piece published in this newsletter in January titled “The Cruelty Is the Point.” I’ve been reluctant to engage because Mr. Lipman is not the person making it illegal to sleep in a tent, or even a cardboard box, within the city limits of Culver City. But Club President Jeff Schwartz’s recent piece in this newsletter, “Question Authority,” crystallized in my mind a critique that I’d offer to both the current city council majority and Mr. Lipman. On the question of how to end homelessness, the city has turned inward and away from policymaking based on evidence, best-practices, and inclusion of the people most affected. That’s a mistake.
The City’s approach to homelessness changed five years ago when we began working with other jurisdictions and in alignment with the Homeless Initiative, which is a regional framework to end homelessness. That framework has just been updated. While there has been plenty of criticism of the Homeless Initiative, the new framework is the result of transparent engagement with that criticism. It’s a good, sound plan that rehoused more than 21,000 people in 2021. It’s very readable and it documents the process of reassessment that produced it in its current form. Take a look! https://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/supdocs/168669.pdf.
The framework explains why the prior council secured more than $30 million to create interim and permanent housing through Homekey. It’s why we directed staff to implement a Safe Parking program and why Vice Mayor McMorrin and I, then comprising the Housing and Homelessness Subcommittee, asked staff to develop a safe camping program to bring to the city council. It’s why we budgeted for motel vouchers, developed a coordinated information system to keep track of our unhoused neighbors’ housing and health needs, increased outreach hours, and much more. We aimed high and thought about the big picture, like when the city council formally endorsed Sydney Kamlager’s bills to create a regional affordable housing funding authority (that bill became a law!) and increase street medicine funding (that bill fell to the governor’s pen).
Mr. Lipman’s direct housing plan is certainly one element of that big picture. But it’s just one strategy among many, and there was state and county funding for a different direct housing program: Homekey. Thanks to a Homekey grant, a direct appropriation from the state budget championed by Congresswoman Kamlager, and additional County funding championed by Supervisor Holly Mitchell, the City will soon open 73 clean, secure rooms of permanent supportive and interim housing with low barriers to entry. That’s also land that the city now owns. Homekey directly addresses the number one finding of the Homeless Initiative’s reassessment: “permanent housing strategies are most impactful, but insufficient in scale.”
Our Homekey projects also show a huge downside of prioritizing unfunded programs like Mr. Lipman’s preferred direct housing program, over funded programs, like Homekey’s direct housing program. Because the regional priority is permanent housing, only the permanent supportive housing portion of our Homekey project has significant outside funding. The city is currently on the hook for most of the cost of operating the interim housing.
I supported admittedly expensive interim housing for two reasons: it addresses resident frustration about street homelessness by providing city-controlled shelter and it affirmatively furthers fair housing to site shelter in an affluent community like Culver City. We will operate only the second shelter on the Westside—which I hope is a point of pride for our community.
I had hoped to secure outside funding for shelter operations by emphasizing that second aspect. That task now falls to the current council, which has invested tremendous time and energy only on the first. It’s always tough to make the case that Culver City, where the median household income is $105,000, needs outside help more than elsewhere in LA County, where the median household income is $76,000. I believe we’ve made it much more difficult by operating on the very edges of the regional framework, and even the constitution, with an ordinance making it illegal to erect a tent for survival. Who would want to help a city that pushes its unhoused residents into neighboring jurisdictions? The tent ban is an explicit statement about our community’s priorities, and it’s a statement that contradicts any case premised on affirmatively furthering fair housing. Time will tell how it affects our efforts to fund programs outside of Homekey (which, thankfully, we are committed to expand under our housing element).
Time will also tell whether banning tents ends homelessness. The evidence strongly suggests that it will not. That body of evidence is also why I support the City’s past policy of working regionally and within the framework of the Homeless Initiative. In short, the root cause of homelessness is a regional lack affordable homes. People like to argue that some personal defect like substance use disorder is the cause of homelessness, perhaps because that understanding removes the need for public investment. They may even point to self-reports about mental illness, job loss, poverty, or divorce as the cause. Those certainly are precipitating events for individuals, but the root cause of homelessness is high rent and low residential vacancy rates.
The book “Homelessness Is A Housing Problem” lays it out well. The authors test the relationship between rates of homelessness in various US cities and different common explanations for homelessness. They find that neither individual vulnerabilities, like substance use disorder or mental illness, nor local political-economic context, like benefit levels or poverty rates, explain regional variation in homelessness. Only absolute rent levels and rental vacancy rates are associated with regional rates of homelessness.
To borrow further from the book’s authors, imagine a game of musical chairs with ten players and nine chairs. Sam has a broken foot and loses. When you ask him why he lost, he’ll tell you he has a broken foot. But the fact is that he wouldn’t have lost if there were one more chair. The world is more complicated, of course, but the reason for the divergence between self-reported explanations for homelessness and the evidence of the actual systemic cause is actually that simple.
The Homeless Initiative does not call for cities simply to build housing and wait. But it also doesn’t say to banish unhoused people. Instead, the framework recognizes that there’s pressure to decommission encampments and encourages cities to adopt “a street to home approach, offering housing subsidies and services to all encamped individuals.”
As shown in a recent RAND study, the overwhelming majority of unhoused and unsheltered people in our region will gladly accept housing or shelter that works for them. Popular programs with unhoused individuals include safe outdoor sleeping areas where residents have a say in governance and private, low-barrier shelter rooms. Banning tents will only expose people to the elements, reduce their privacy and safety, and displace people away from the outreach workers with whom they’ve developed trust.
The notion that a paternalistic, law enforcement-based approach should guide policy making comes from uninformed pop wisdom and the pages of “San Fransicko,” an ideologically incoherent screed that serves up right wing culture war politics without trying to connect its grievances to any solutions. The book’s explanations are superficially appealing to some but they cannot point the way to lasting solutions because they are incorrect.
Even if the ban is never enforced, by turning inward, and away from what works, we have unquestionably spent staff time and focus on a project that won’t house a single person. I hope that redirecting that energy is not the reason why the Inglewood Oil Field settlement is not complete, or why Homekey and safe parking still are not open.
It’s parochialism and homespun policy making across 88 separate cities that created this particular big problem. Prioritizing investment of public resources into initiatives that actually end homelessness will require a return to a broader perspective—we succeed when we recognize that big problems require regional collaboration within evidence-based frameworks. Let’s turn away from this path of becoming Culver Sicky and back toward proactive, result-oriented regionalism.
Thank you Alex for a thoughtful, in depth, assessment of our current situation. We can only hope that the current majority of our city council will see the wisdom in what you say.