On Sept. 17, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the rollout of the city’s latest initiative to combat homelessness: a multi-series, $20 million plan to move people off the streets and into temporary shelters known as “bridge homes” for the next three years.
“Homeless Angelenos can’t wait years to get off the streets,” Garcetti said at a press conference in El Pueblo. “We need more options for bringing them inside now.”
This initiative comes after a series of permanent housing programs that unsuccessfully attempted to mitigate the city’s growing homelessness epidemic. In the mayor’s words, these bridge homes are unique in that their goal is “to serve as a rest stop on the path to permanent housing.”
But, despite its noble intentions, this initiative’s promise to alleviate street homelessness rings hollow. The first of the temporary shelters, located in the El Pueblo district, cost the city approximately $2.4 million, yet will only house 45 individuals. This is only about 1.5 percent of L.A.’s homeless population, excluding those who stay in shelters overnight. Given the amount of funding the program has received, the results so far are disappointing. Garcetti’s inability to follow through with his campaign promise of achieving zero homelessness is not just due to poor execution of large-scale initiatives like this one; his overall approach to tackling homelessness is misguided.
“There’s no question that homes are the cure for homelessness,” Garcetti said of the bridge homes in a news conference last Wednesday.
Garcetti’s statement indicates how he does not understand the root causes of homelessness. According to L.A. Family Housing, the leading causes of homelessness across L.A. County are a lack of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty, all three of which are deeply intertwined and complex issues. To provide a long-term solution to the homelessness crisis, these factors must first be addressed. This means lowering the cost of housing, creating jobs and addressing the root causes of unemployment — including health obstacles, family problems and lack of access to education.
Garcetti has addressed unemployment extensively throughout his time in office, championing job creation as a focal point. His crowning achievement comes with his “10,000 Strong” veterans hiring initiative, in which he surpassed his goal by employing over 10,500 veterans in a variety of industries. But in a city characterized by its high cost of living, employment may not be enough for residents to afford rent. According to a study by the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate, L.A. renters are allocating an average of 47 percent of their income toward rent, making the city the most unaffordable rent market in the country. To meet the criteria for affordable rent, residents should only be spending 30 percent or less of their paychecks on housing. Given the lack of affordable housing units in the market, this means renters must earn an average of $42 per hour, a standard far above the city’s minimum wage of $10.50, and far above what residents of the bridge homes are earning. Without a high source of income or access to economical living units, bridge home residents will have no choice but to return to the streets after their stays are up, and Garcetti will be no closer to his zero homelessness goal.
Economists have identified a shortage of homes as another reason for the lack of affordable housing. While Garcetti has attempted to address this crisis with an initiative that aims to build 100,000 new housing units by 2021, only 15 percent of those living spaces are required to be financially accessible to the low-income families who need them most. The bridge homes opened this week are only meant to be temporary while new residences are in progress. If only a small fraction of new L.A. houses are built to be affordable for low income individuals, most residents of the temporary shelters will continue to struggle to find permanent housing once their stays are up.
Although Garcetti’s bridge home program has been lackluster so far, it does have redeeming qualities that provide hope for further success down the line. The bridge homes are built around existing encampments, which city sanitation teams will restore into walkways once the residents have settled into their bridge homes. In this way, the initiative is minimally disturbing to both the homeless population, who can stay in an area that is familiar to them, and to the residents of the neighborhoods surrounding these former encampments. Additionally, the communities surrounding each bridge home will be equipped with mental health resources, career advising and substance abuse support — all of which directly address some of leading causes of homelessness in L.A. County.
Considering these factors, Garcetti’s intentions appear to be in the right place, but whether the remainder of his initiative will be implemented successfully remains unclear. To ensure greater success of his anti-homelessness initiatives, he must take a more multifaceted approach, such as the one taken by Houston’s Homeless Outreach Program. This program assigns teams of police officers and mental health professionals to address the root causes of homelessness on an individual, case-by-case basis by assisting citizens with medical challenges, obtaining social security cards and other services. If Garcetti wants to fulfill his promise of zero homelessness, he will have to look past getting the homeless population into houses and begin tackling the multitude of issues that drove them out of homes in the first place.