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.