California's "Housing First" Homeless Disaster
Gavin Newsom has a chance to change course. Will he?
Five days before winning re-election as California’s governor, Gavin Newsom surprised local leaders by rejecting every single plan put forward by a city, county or organization to fight homelessness—and withholding $1 billion in state money until those plans improve. He said h
e’d convene a meeting this month to discuss what really works. He should start with what doesn’t work: everything California has done for years.
Residents have known for years what Mr. Newsom has only belatedly recognized: that the government is failing to address the problem. Homelessness is a nationwide problem, but nowhere is it as bad as in the Golden State. More than 150,000 Californians are homeless on any given night. Most of those—about 70%—are unsheltered. They live outside in streets and parks. Despite billions in state and local spending every year, more than half of the country’s unsheltered homeless are in California.
California’s failed approach to homelessness is built around the “housing first” model. The goal is to get every long-term homeless person into a permanent, government-subsidized home—with no prequalifications like sobriety, drug treatment or psychiatric care. Until that goal is reached, the state will allow people to camp and sleep almost anywhere and to do almost anything.
Research shows these policies don’t work. A 2017 Journal of Housing Economics studyfound that cities must build about 10 new permanent subsidized homes to get even one person off the street. That’s because many such homes end up occupied by people who would have found a place to live anyway. Free homes are attractive, even to those who could conceivably afford to pay. California can’t build a million free homes for the homeless, especially when recent “affordable” housing in the state costs upward of $700,000 a unit to build.
Studies have also shown that open street camping creates death and distress. University of Pennsylvania criminologists Richard Berkand John MacDonald found that an anticamping enforcement on Los Angeles’s Skid Row after 2006 reduced violence and death among the homeless. But as L.A. has allowed camps to proliferate again, the number of annual deaths on the streets has quadrupled to almost 2,000. About 15% of all violent crime in the city today involves the 1% of the population that is homeless, either as perpetrator or victim.
This policy failure is a choice. A new Missouri law prevents state money from being spent on utopian housing solutions and requires new programs to show how they will help the homeless get back into the workforce while staying off the streets and out of the hospital. It also requires cities to enforce laws against street camping and sleeping. California radicals want the public to believe that there is no middle ground between imprisoning troubled homeless people and allowing them to wreak havoc. That’s not true. Mandating treatment for people who need it can make a real difference.
Unless Mr. Newsom is willing to get serious about confronting the underlying ideological problems with his state’s homeless policy, all his recent promises are just talk. Instead of spending billions on dubious housing programs, he should make sure immediate shelters are available for those who need them. He should tie new long-term housing to mandatory drug, alcohol and mental-health treatment. And he should take action against dangerous, unsanctioned public camping.
These solutions are popular across the board. Voters in liberal Austin, Texas, voted in 2021 to reinstate a longtime camping ban in defiance of the City Council, which had repealed it for ideological reasons. Even San Francisco voters approved a camping ban in 2016, though city leaders have allowed the camps to spread.
It remains to be seen if Mr. Newsom is simply distancing himself from California’s homeless catastrophe in advance of a possible run for president, or if he’s actually willing to stand up to the state’s activists and housing nonprofits that former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown called “the sacred cartel.”
We hope it’s the latter. California desperately needs some courageous leadership. Hundreds of thousands suffer unnecessarily because of the current lack of courage