SAN DIEGO – California grows big ideas. And the latest one comes at a hefty price: $80 million.
That’s what San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the city’s housing commission intend to spend to fight the growing problem of homelessness in America’s Finest City.
Not content to merely do what officials in other U.S. cities have done for the last three decades, and increase support for homeless shelters or efforts to place people in transitional structures, San Diego officials want to go so far as to actually provide permanent housing to those who have none.
Recent figures show that more than 9,100 homeless individuals live in San Diego County. And the problem is getting worse. The number of people sleeping on the street has reportedly increased by nearly 30 percent over the past year.
According to those who provide services to this population, there is a large number of homeless people who did not arrive here in this condition. The city helped make them homeless.
What the brochure for America’s Finest City doesn’t tell you is that it’s also one of America’s least affordable cities. Million-dollar homes are common. A one-bedroom apartment can run $1,800 per month, while a two-bedroom unit can set you back around $2,300.
Homelessness is a heartbreaking problem, wherever you find it. It particularly churns your stomach to learn that much of the city’s homeless population is made up of families.
The city’s anti-homeless initiative – which has been dubbed “Housing First-San Diego” and has a half-dozen elements – is slated to be rolled out over the next three years.
Yet it takes only three seconds to see how this well-intentioned idea could go off the rails and make the problem worse.
The program includes giving incentives to landlords to rent to homeless people and assisting up to 700 families that become homeless because of a sudden change like a job loss.
All of this is commendable. Whether we’re talking about tax breaks to foster private investment in the inner city or taxing cigarettes and alcohol, government should use whatever tools it has to encourage positive outcomes and discourage negative behavior.
And renting housing units to the homeless is, for society, clearly a desirable outcome.
But the initiative doesn’t stop there. It would also provide hundreds of housing vouchers and actually place some of the homeless in permanent housing. That is a whole other matter.
Human nature dictates that people put more value in things they earn rather than what’s handed to them on a platter. Besides, public giveaways – even at the local level – can often empower government while fostering dependence among those on the receiving end. Finally, while it’s hard to believe that anyone chooses to be homeless, there is a debate raging over whether some people – at least in those cases that don’t involve mental illness or drug abuse – choose to remain homeless. Giving them permanent housing is less like a safety net and more like a hammock.
Don’t kill the messenger. Why would anyone choose to remain homeless? No one ever said that human beings were totally rational people.
But the biggest problem with the city’s new homeless initiative is that it puts a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, while skirting the real issues that are helping fuel aspects of this crisis because they’re messy and tough to deal with.
Like the fact that people need job training and employment opportunities. Or the fact that, in a city with an outdated public transportation system, people need cars to get to work – and cars cost money to own, register, fuel, and maintain.
Or the fact that rents keep soaring, and salaries haven’t kept up – issues that a Republican mayor, like Faulconer, with possible aspirations for statewide office, isn’t likely to force with his donors in the business community.
I would guess that most Americans who have a roof over their heads rarely if ever give the homeless a thought. That has to change. This is everyone’s problem to solve. And quick fixes aren’t much of a solution.
I’m willing to believe that the city officials who conceived of San Diego’s anti-homeless initiative, and the homeless advocates who are applauding it, think they’re doing the right thing.
They probably have good intentions. But you know where that road leads.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.