In California, homelessness is a long-running crisis. And it is a human tragedy for an estimated 160,000 unhoused people.
But homelessness is also incredibly useful for anyone who wants to complain about California. It allows us to say anything and everything we want about our state.
Especially right now. Politicians, journalists, authors, professors, and social media trolls will tell you that California’s homelessness shows the utter failure of, well, take your pick: Democrats, Republicans, new progressive policies, old conservative policies, police, prosecutors, judges, the health system, the housing market, the drug war, rent control, Prop 13, developers, NIMBYs, socialism, capitalism.
The critics may think they are making novel arguments, but making homelessness a hobbyhorse is one of California’s most durable traditions, at least as old as the state itself.
In 1855, the North Carolina author Hinton R. Helper, in the first best-selling anti-California screed, The Land of Gold: Reality vs. Fiction, declared that the Golden State was destined to fail—by pointing to the homeless people who filled San Francisco’s streets.
“Degradation, profligacy and vice confront us at every step,” Helper wrote. “Dozens of penniless vagabonds … are always wandering about the city in idleness and misery. [They] have no other place to rest, no bed except [bales of hay] into which they creep for shelter and slumber during the long hours of the night.”
Helper introduced a slur against California that persists today; our homelessness shows California not merely to be a place of poverty, but to be a place full of people of lower morals and greater corruption than other Americans. He wrote: “We know of no country in which there is so much corruption, villainy, outlawry, intemperance, licentiousness, and every variety of crime, folly and meanness.”
Californians themselves internalized the presence of street people as a moral failing—and they reacted with moral panic, and in ways that caused lasting damage.
There are too many examples to list them all here, but some stand out.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Los Angeles leaders exploited fears of vagrants—poor white men labeled “hoboes”—to build an excessively punitive jail system that plagues Southern California to this day.
In the 1930s, the California political establishment capitalized on fears of homeless and poor people in order to defeat the gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair, who promised to build a modern social welfare state to fight poverty. (Hollywood producers created ads casting actors as homeless people, saying they would move to California to secure the benefits of Sinclair’s programs.)
Since World War II, which saw a migration west that left people scrambling for housing here, public officials have routinely used homelessness to justify crime crackdowns, unconstitutional policing, mass incarceration, the drug war, longer prison sentences, and a variety of failed policies on mental health.
In today’s more polarized times, the hobbyhorse of homelessness is more frequently put to partisan purposes. A Wall Street Journal columnist writes that California homelessness shows that “doctrinaire progressivism” is a “suicide pact.” Right-of-center commentators routinely cite the billions California has devoted to housing and other services for the unhoused as evidence of the failures of socialism.
This generation’s version of Hilton Helper—an over-the-top critic—is the writer and activist Michael Shellenberger, a progressive turned right-wing darling. Shellenberger used homelessness and public drug use to argue—in his book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities and a campaign for governor—that Democrats had caused nothing less than “the breakdown of civilization” on the West Coast.
“It was Democrats, not Republicans, who played the primary role in creating the dominant neoliberal model of government contracting to fragmented and often unaccountable non-profit service providers that have proven financially, structurally and legally incapable of addressing the crisis,” Shellenberger wrote in San Fransicko.
Of course, demagoguing homelessness is not an exclusively conservative practice. Among activists and writers on the left, homelessness is often described as the product of home ownership and, to quote the Nation, “the ultimate symbol” of American capitalism. An official for the powerful Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative wrote that homelessness represented an attack on liberal democracy. A United Nations official used California homelessness to accuse the United States of multiple human rights violations.
Radical and counter-productive responses also have come at the grassroots level on California’s streets, with some activists discouraging unhoused people from accepting offers of housing. In Los Angeles, city council member Kevin de León, one of California’s most accomplished progressive politicians, has been engaged in a nasty conflict with activists.
“We’re investing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to connect our unhoused neighbors to housing,” de León told the Los Angeles Times. “And to see people sabotage and undermine this work should be infuriating to all Angelenos.”
But the responses from all sides often tell you more about critics’ own politics than about the complex and peculiar nature of homelessness itself. And as we argue about homelessness, we are failing to keep up with new dimensions of the problem, including increases in the number of deaths on the streets during the pandemic.
Today, Californians rank homelessness as our state’s biggest problem. But it’s not too big to be solved. The homeless population is not overwhelming; 160,000 people is less than one-half of one percent of the total population of California. Local communities have more money than ever before, from local taxes to federal relief funds, that they could use to address homelessness.
Might we make progress if we stopped using the homeless to make our arguments, and instead listened more to unhoused people and sought to address their many different needs? Those who work with the homeless say that unhoused people themselves are largely untapped sources of ideas.
And if we California critics gave up homelessness as our old hobbyhorse, we commentators would have no trouble finding other issues to represent this state’s dysfunction.
I would suggest water policy.