L.A. County’s Latest Homeless Initiative: A Failure in Charity

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Los Angeles bureaucrats are toying with what has to be the dumbest project to fight homelessness in modern history: building “guest houses” for the homeless in people’s private backyards.

Last August, L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors approved a $550,000 pilot program to build several of these guest houses for homeowners who agree to participate in the social experiment, the L.A. Times reported. Then in February, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded the city a $100,000 Mayor’s Challenge grant “to study the feasibility” of these backyard units, which are expected to cost up to $350,000 apiece.

An idea like this offers real insight into the lack of charity at the heart of progressive politics, which offers shallow, top-down material solutions to complex human problems.

Thankfully, Catholic social teaching provides a much more humane and effective alternative: the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that what can be achieved by smaller bodies should not be usurped by larger, more complex institutions.

The Catechism offers further insight into the benefits of this socioeconomic tool:

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

I lived in New York City under the progressive reign of mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, who raised spending for homeless services to record highs with precious little to show for it. After the billions spent on combating homelessness, Penn Station, one of the city’s most populated travel hubs, still feels like a third-world country.

And while cities like New York and L.A. could typically be considered the proverbial faces of government overreach, some remarkable exceptions do exist.

Last Christmas, I interviewed the Chief Development Officer of Manhattan’s Bowery Mission, a Christian charity that takes a holistic approach to the problem of homelessness. The Bowery is a successful example of subsidiarity at work in our country.

Bowery CDO James Winans told me that expensive government programs are often unsuccessful because they only focus on material needs like food and shelter, while a problem as complex as homelessness requires a personal, human response that tends to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of these individuals.

Organizations like the Bowery have exponentially better long-term track records of preventing homelessness than big-city shelters, though they operate solely or predominantly on private donations.

L.A.’s homeless AirBnB program is a prime example of how a big-government-solves-everything approach wastes gobs of money without getting to the heart of societal problems. The progressive elites behind this project are the same group of people whose idea of solving economic problems is sterilizing and aborting society’s “undesirables.” At the end of the day, it’s all about the numbers.

Homelessness is a condition that almost always entails more than a mere lack of housing. It could be the result of mental illness, drug abuse, depression, or even personal preference. The nicest backyard condo in the world won’t fill a desperate heart with hope or provide an addict with loving accountability.

What if instead of viewing “the homeless” as some monolithic people group, communities approached the vulnerable as individual persons, each with their own story and unique needs?

Instead of trying to eradicate Homelessness completely — a goal that has not been successfully achieved over the entire course of human history — what if families, churches, businesses, and government leaders worked together to care for their homeless brethren in a way that was truly caring, personal, and dignifying?

Leftist government officials would rather throw money at an issue than do the hard and often complicated work of charity. And while their initiatives might pass for compassion on a budget proposal, the reality looks a lot more like disdain.

Our cities can do better than this, and Catholics can show them how it’s done.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Carly Hoilman is a columnist at CatholicVote.org, and a freelance culture writer and editor based in the greater Philadelphia area. She is a wife, mother, Catholic convert, and alumna of The King's College in New York City. You can find her writings at CatholicVote, TheBlaze, Conservative Review, and Faithwire. Follow her work on Twitter @carlyhoilman.

4 Comments

  1. Rob Schroeder on

    It’s sad the extent the author goes to portray anything that government does as bad. To the point of literally making things up.
    The author complains that merely providing interim housing for homeless people is not enough because homeless people often have a series of mental, financial and emotional needs. Well, the LA Times article that the author linked to says explicitly:
    “Tenants would be screened and receive social services that could include case management, job training and counseling.”
    The author portrays these efforts as a project of bureaucrats. Well, the LA Times article the author linked to says explicitly:
    “L.A. city voters agreed to tax themselves $1.2 billion for homeless housing.”
    The author claims that building housing explicitly for the homeless displays “lack of charity at the heart of progressive politics, which offers shallow, material solutions to complex human problems.”
    As someone who volunteers at a homeless shelter in Chicago, interim housing is actually a critical part of infrastructure in supporting the homeless. In major cities, rent is expensive. Rent is very expensive in Los Angeles. Interim housing, where formerly homeless people can either live for free or pay a set portion of their income as rent, allows homeless people to save money so they can actually afford to acquire their own housing and have a small nest egg saved up for when the inevitable bumps in the road come in the future. Sending people straight from shelter housing to their own rental units statistically increases the likelihood of homeless recidivism because a staggering portion of a formerly homeless person’s new income is devoted to housing costs.
    The author completely fails to address the financial externalities of homelessness. It’s easy to toss out a dollar figure like $550,000 as a waste of money without providing any context. For example, how much do LA residents pay in tax dollars for the number of homeless people who cycle through the criminal justice system, since so many activities of being homeless – sleeping in a park or urinating outside, for example, are often criminalized? What is the financial cost to taxpayers of homeless people who cycle through emergency rooms?
    Homeless students in K-12 schools have some of the worst educational outcomes of any disparate student group, largely because the natural transience in their life leads them to frequently switch schools. Frequently switching schools correlates with negative academic outcomes. What is the financial benefit of providing a homeless family with the ability to enroll in one school permanently?
    Rather than an anti-government screed, if the author has evidence that interim housing models are financially inefficient, she should provide that evidence.

    • Alcohol Anonymous has been so successful for many years because it addresses not only the alcoholism but the many behavior and mental challenges that accompany it. Without confronting the core dysfunction, the homelessness will not be resolved. Placing homeless in ‘guest houses’ does not care for their other psych needs which seems to be the author’s finding. In fact, some homeless individuals are violent, frequently abuse drugs and could create a dangerous situation for families. Some will not stay in their cottage since living on the street is what they know. The author may have come across a successful program and sometimes private solutions without government involvement frees up solutions without multiple organization rules and regulations. Anything is worth a try and just because it is not government does not mean that it’s not likely to work. Below is the AA website link. Their success has been proven by using a multifaceted approach.
      https://alcoholicsanonymous.com/

  2. Thanks Rob. A breath of fresh air. So much vitriolic self-righteousness in one article. You would think L.A County was a subversive group trying to undermine America rather than trying to help the homeless.

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