Homelessness: the bureaucrats just don’t get it

There have been many articles bewailing the increase in homelessness in West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.  Here’s one recent report about Los Angeles.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

The number of homeless people in Los Angeles County jumped 12 percent over the past year, officials announced Tuesday, despite $619 million in government spending to help alleviate the problem.

The annual point-in-time count recorded nearly 59,000 homeless people countywide, with the largest number — 36,000 — coming from the city of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a county agency which conducted the count, delivered its report to the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting.

The 2018 tally found a slight decrease in the homeless population at just over 53,000 people. Supervisor Janice Hahn called the new numbers “disheartening.”

“Even though our data shows we are housing more people than ever, it is hard to be optimistic when that progress is overwhelmed by the number of people falling into homelessness,” Hahn said.

Homeless advocates put the blame on elected officials for not doing enough to get people off the street.

There’s more at the link.

The two highlighted sentences put the problem in a nutshell.

  • “$619 million in government spending to help alleviate the problem”?  Have these people never heard the late President Ronald Reagan’s truism, “If you want more of something, subsidize it; if you want less of something, tax it”?  That $619 million isn’t “spending to alleviate the problem” – it’s a subsidy.  It’s paying for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of jobs where people’s livelihoods depend on the homelessness problem not going away.  They have no incentive to “fix” the problem, because that will also do away with their jobs.  What’s more, it’s paying the homeless to be homeless.
  • “Homeless advocates put the blame on elected officials for not doing enough to get people off the street.”  Elected officials didn’t cause the problem – so why rely on them to solve it?  This is just another example of the “big government” mindset.  Let government do it all!  Make government responsible for solving all our problems!  Those who think that way forget that another US President, the late Gerald Ford, famously said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

Do the math for yourself.  There were “nearly 59,000” homeless people in Los Angeles County at last count, and the county (i.e. the city – the former is subsumed in the latter) spent $619 million on them.  That’s almost $10,500 per homeless person per year – in just one city, in just one state, at taxpayer expense.  What have they got to show for it?  Almost nothing.  The city is going to spend the same, or more, over the next year, with no better result.  They’re pouring good money after bad, as the Los Angeles Times inadvertently confirms.

The meager bit of good news is that many homeless people are indeed being helped. Last year, the county says it housed 21,631 people — more than in any previous year. It also prevented an estimated 5,600 people from falling into homelessness.

But the frightening news is that as fast as the county bailed people out of homelessness, more fell in … There are more people living in cars, vans and RVs, and there are 17% more people in tents and makeshift shelters on the streets than were counted in 2018. Of the 14,075 “chronically homeless” people on the street last year, 4,902 got housed. Yet those who remained were joined by so many more people who graduated into chronic homelessness — defined as having a disability and living on the streets for at least a year — that the overall number went up 17%.

Again, more at the link.

Sadly, like so many others, the newspaper falls into the trap of expecting government to do everything.  Read the full editorial for yourself.  It’s “Big Brother” writ large – and I find that scary in the extreme.  If you delegate that much responsibility to bureaucrats, they’re going to demand the authority to go with it – and once they get that authority, they’ll do things their way, perpetuating their bureaucracy, entrenching their control, and denying ordinary citizens any recourse against their overreach.  We’ve seen that time and time again in other government bureaucracies.  Why would it be any different when it comes to homelessness?

The city would be far better off, financially speaking, if it killed that entire budget category, and spent the money on something more productive.  For that matter, it’s doubtful that the homeless would be any worse off without it, given the ongoing scale of the problem – at least, there’s no evidence to suggest that.  After all, many of those who were “helped” end up back on the streets again!  (Based on my own experience of working with the homeless, through church institutions, I’d say that the linked article is hopelessly optimistic in its numbers;  I’ll be very surprised if they aren’t really twice as bad, and possibly even worse.)  Instead, Los Angeles and other cities are going to do what Albert Einstein allegedly defined as insanity:  “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  The results won’t be different, of course.  They’ll be the same old, same old.

If you talk to any experienced professional in the field, two problems are identified time and time again as the root cause of most homelessness.  They are drug addiction and mental health issues.  (Of course, they’re often two sides of the same coin, because drug addiction frequently produces mental health issues over time;  and mental health issues are often self-medicated, by those who can’t access professional services for whatever reason, by turning to illicit narcotics.)  Little, if any, of the amount spent on “homelessness” addresses either issue.  The money is therefore treating a symptom rather than the cause of the problem.

I don’t know what the solution to homelessness might be, from a government perspective.  However, I have a pretty good idea what it is from a private individual’s perspective.  It involves accepting individual responsibility for my life, and helping others to do the same.  My life is in my hands.  There’s no point in expecting others to “do it for me”;  I’ve got to do it myself, or do without.  I may need a helping hand now and again (see the next paragraph), but that help should be oriented towards helping me get out of the mess I’m in, and not fall back into it.  Any help that makes me perpetually dependent on others makes me a leech on society.  I accept some people can’t avoid that, for reasons beyond their control – but there aren’t that many of them.

That ethic also involves using my time and talents to effectively help others (something we should all consider, IMHO, on the grounds of basic humanity if not any “higher calling” such as religious belief).  Note the word “effectively”.  Any help that does not actually succeed in effecting a permanent change for the better, isn’t truly effective.  I’ve found, in my experience, that assistance from faith groups and community organizations that are rooted in and grounded on reality, and work to improve their communities rather than merely feather the nests of their organizers, tends to be far more effective than intervention by officious bureaucrats.

Finally, for those who argue that I “lack compassion”, or I’m “heartless”, for decrying wasteful, ineffective government spending on the homeless . . . kindly show me where that approach has succeeded in resolving the problem.  It hasn’t?  Then why continue it?  Aren’t we throwing good money after bad?  Aren’t we doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results?  Is there any likelihood whatsoever that continuing with an approach that has consistently, demonstrably FAILED, every time, will eventually produce success?  Riddle me that!

No.  Spending such inordinate amounts on homelessness is, in the end, only pandering to those who proclaim desperately, “But we can’t just stand there!  We have to do something!”  My answer is, simply, “Why?” and “What?”  Why can’t local governments just “stand there” when they demonstrably can’t solve the problem in any meaningful way?  And what do we “have” to do?  If you can’t suggest something practical, demonstrably effective, and affordable, then stop throwing good taxpayer money after bad – and stop subsidizing homelessness!



  1. …one way to inculcate a sense of self-directedness would be to enslave them and break their legs. It seemed to work for Epictetus.
    Oh. wait, you meant the homeless…

  2. I think you'll find that "almost $10,500 per homeless person per year" is an extremely lowball estimate. It sounds like it's only the money LA county itself is spending. Based on other numbers I've seen, if you rolled up the state and federal money you'd get north of $50,000 each.

    If you simply gave them that $50,000 a year you'd get … a complete waste of money because of the issues of addiction and mental health issues you mention.

    IMO, the most humane thing you could do for these people is intense psychological treatments, probably with potent drugs, and probably long term confinement mental hospitals. That would make your $10,500 (or $50,000) per person incredibly cheap. The next best would be "make them uncomfortable in their" homelessness, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin. Run them off. Make them uncomfortable. Incentivize getting better.

    Sounds harsh, but sometimes "tough love" works.

  3. Quit putting the source of their comfort in places the working people frequent and/or live. The homeless are VERY good at finding handouts, so if the soup kitchens and shelters are all out away from town centers, that is where the homeless will tend to congregate. It is far from 100% of course, but the tent cities will move like ants follow honey. It is possible to be compassionate ANY keep the problem children away from the masses.

    Also, this is the downside of freedom…the freedom to make bad choices…but one has to allow it to run its course and the penalties for bad choices must be part and parcel. That is where the lib/progs fail humanity.

  4. Bureaucracies begat fiefdoms, and jobs for life… The problem will never go away until the money dries up and the bureaucracy folds…

  5. Part of the problem if mountains of garbage is the city hiked garbage rates 300% with special no competition contracts that somehow are related to recycling. End result is more dumping on the street. And the solution is more enforcement to prevent this!

    Driving past the homeless areas is incredible.

    And the voters in Ca, made it harder to jail people on theft. Result has been higher thefts, to fuel their drug habits.

    Such a broken system.

    And due to lots of extra building requirements, it’s very expensive to build new housing. New houses need fire sprinkler systems, solar wiring, etc.

  6. I think the biggest thing to point out is that everything these days is a "social problem" or gets politicized in some way.
    Any one person's issues should, instead, be "their own personal problem(s)" to be handled on an individual "one by one" basis.

    Generic "solutions", based on assumptions surrounding prototypes/pigeonholes/stereotypes are "panaceas" that won't work because they're all based on imagery instead of reality.
    No two person's situation are ever identical.

  7. I used to follow the homeless issues in Toronto Canada. Population around 2.5 million and around approximately 7,000 homeless on the streets. Maybe a bit more maybe a bit less. City is paying something like 250 million a year on the "problem".
    The majority of the money goes to social workers, shelters, and what have you. Doesn't do one single thing to getting the parasites off the streets.
    Had to deal with the local group at one job site. Local group numbered about 20 on a regular basis. About three were outright mental health cases, the rest addicts and lifestyle choices. They would line up every morning at 5:30 waiting for the Sally Ann truck that gave them food and packages of sanitary supplies (which were tossed away practically immediately). Every winter they would get new coats and new sleeping bags.

    Yeah, we're helping the homeless alright…

  8. The politicians are not completely blameless for the mess.
    They are responsible for zoning laws and building codes that make it nearly impossible to create new apartment houses.
    Simply build some high rises, give every homeless a one room apartment and you would spend much less.
    The rooms have a bed, a kitchenette a table and a chair. A closet and that's it.
    Divide the druggies and the simply unfortunate into different buildings. Fumigate the druggie building yearly, renovate the other one when necessary.

  9. @MadMcAl

    1) Almost all of them are druggies. By personal experience, fewer than 1 in 10 are "simply unfortunate", and those are the ones who get themselves together in 6 months or less, with minimal official "help".
    2) The druggies would burn themselves and everyone else out daily, when they blew up their home-brew meth cooker, fell asleep stoned, etc.
    3) Inside a year, the druggie ghetto buildings would completely uninhabitable, due to needles, trash, structural damage, etc.

    4) The neighbors, residential or corporate, would either flee, or burn the entire project down in weeks, for cause.

    They're not homeless because they can't afford a place to stay, they're homeless because they're crazy, addicted, and completely irresponsible, as well as functionally unable to live within society's lines.

    They don't go to the shelters now because the shelters won't let them bring in dope and booze. So they're only as crazy as they have to be.

    Start rounding them up, and putting them on chain gangs for six months at a stretch for every minor offense. For starters, they'd be shoveling up all the trash they've deposited city-wide, down to original concrete and asphalt. L.A. would have the cleanest streets in the nation.

    And within a year, L.A. city would go from 135,000 "homeless", to about 1000 hard core insane. Those should be institutionalized, long-term.

    The other 134,000 would either self-deport, or get a clue and learn to cope with the world sober and without breaking the rules.

    If I'm going to subsidize their domicile, it needs to be one with bars, rules, and armed guards. When they can live by the same rules as everyone else, they can have their freedom back.

    Problem solved.

    Additional money required: $0.
    And L.A. could save every penny they've squandered on mollycoddling them.

    Which is only bad news for the city's civil service rent-seekers making a living by subsidizing winos and dope fiends.

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