The Homegrown Crisis California Refuses to Own
The Homegrown Crisis California Refuses to Own by Robert SCHEER for Strategic-Culture
Anyone who has spent even a short period of time in California’s cities will immediately notice the homelessness crisis that has grown to stunning proportions in recent years. The “explanation” that’s often thrown around is that people who become homeless travel to the Golden State, where, presumably, the mild weather blunts some of the difficulties of living without a roof over one’s head. But this, like most justifications for inhumane problems, is just that: a justification to make Californians feel slightly less terrible every time they come across a person in need on the streets of some of the wealthiest, most progressive cities in the world.
As Tommy Newman, a lawyer and a senior director at the nonprofit United Way, points out in the latest installment of the “Scheer Intelligence” podcast, a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in California, earning it the shameful moniker of “Homeless Capital of America.”
That’s not the only staggering number related to the issue. “About 70% of the people who are living outside [in Los Angeles County] last lived indoors in L.A. County, and of that subset, 50% lived here for more than a decade indoors,” Newman tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on the podcast. The numbers, which clearly debunk the common rationalization about homelessness, should lead us all to the crucial conclusion Newman has drawn from the statistics.
“This is a homegrown challenge,” he says. “Some people will come here, but if your whole life falls apart and you’re in Iowa, you’re not going to say, ‘All right, well, I’ve lost everything, and now I’m going to California’—you’re stuck.”
Jerry Brown, the state’s four-term governor, considered the crisis so dire that, as Newman points out, he thought that climate change would be solved sooner than homelessness. Newman, however, isn’t willing to give up on the pressing issue, and thanks to his work and that of his colleagues, big changes in both policy and popular opinion have already begun to materialize. Two Los Angeles ballot measures—Proposition HHH and Measure H—aimed at creating affordable housing for thousands—passed in the miraculous span of four months. The efforts to pass these measures were documented in the 2018 film “The Advocates,” in which Newman appears, and which is available for viewing on streaming services. While the progress springing from these policies will take time, Newman warns, it will take place.
One of the main difficulties faced by United Way and others who advocate for helping homeless people is how Californians feel about housing, especially one specific group that is stuck on a suburban Nimbyism and rejects zoning for more affordable multifamily housing.
“It’s white people who are primarily the challenge on this housing question,” Newman tells Scheer. “White people support more multifamily housing, more apartments—whether they’re affordable or not, more apartments—to the tune of about 40%. And people who are not white support apartments to the tune of about 60%. So it is white people who own homes who are the cause of the homelessness crisis, and will need to be a part of the solution in some way, unless we can build a larger coalition around them and create that pressure.”
Scheer, who has lived in California most of his adult life, sees the question of how we approach homelessness amid blatant affluence as one that gets to the core of our humanity.
“The fact of the matter is, we’re kind of in this Dickens world of London,” Scheer says. “We have extreme wealth in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and points in between. And yet we have the most abject misery.
“I do want to encourage people to realize that we are actually talking about a notion of what is civilization,” he adds. “I think that you can’t be a city of the future, which is what L.A. advertises as, [unless you are] welcoming to people who all look different ways, come from different backgrounds, have different skill sets, different employment opportunities.”
Listen to the full discussion between Scheer and Newman about the political, social and economic factors contributing to the Golden State’s most shameful failures to date. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, kind of the poor man’s CIA, and where the intelligence comes from our guests. In this case, Tommy Newman. And I only know Tommy because there’s a movie that the United Way, which he’s connected with–he’s now Senior Director of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. But there’s a movie called The Advocates, and it’s about really dedicated human beings, young people, who work to try to figure out: Who are these homeless people that are humps of humanity around us here in Los Angeles? And really, in every other major city, some minor cities? Are they alive or dead? What’s the explanation, why don’t we care? You think of the Good Samaritan in Luke, and Jesus saying if you want to get to heaven, care about that person that’s at the side of the road, and that’s been robbed or beaten or abandoned. And yet we don’t. And when I saw that movie, The Advocates, I just felt–guilt is not the right word. I just felt, what is wrong with me? Me–and forget about the society, forget about everything else. How do I coexist with this extreme state of deprivation of human beings? Yes, it happens elsewhere; it happens with immigrants at the border now, it happens with refugees. But right here, in the center of one of the most prosperous cities in the world–and certainly San Francisco is another incredibly prosperous city, and yet if you’re in downtown San Francisco, you go to the Salesforce building, and right around it is a whole encampment at night. So let me ask you about that. You’re a product of this California culture; you work for the United Way; you’re an attorney, educated in California at a good Catholic institution, University of San Francisco; you went to Loyola High School. And so your religion, your humanity, would tell you this is unacceptable. So how come we’ve accepted it in this deep blue, progressive, democratic-controlled state of California?