Plans to move California's homeless population into centralized facilities gain steam .

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Plans to move California's homeless population into centralized facilities gain steam

        

Duane Nason thinks he has a solution for California’s rising homelessness crisis. The software developer and web engineer envisions a 300-acre property—similar in size to an amusement park, he says—with high-rise apartment towers, on-site medical services, and access to job training. Nason’s plan would create what’s essentially an entirely new city the size of Berkeley, but in rural California, with enough room to house the state’s entire homeless population, which currently numbers over 150,000.

“The only way to come up with a complete solution was to build a complete city,” he tells Curbed.

Nason, who has a degree in mathematics, says he’s been studying the state’s response to the homelessness crisis for the past two years. He’s confident that his plan for a “single, supportive living environment,” which he’s calling Citizens Again, is the best way to solve the problem because it would only cost $3 billion to build—what he says the entire country spends every eight months on homelessness responses that are largely replicated or repetitive efforts. (The $3 billion doesn’t include annual operating costs; he’s currently crowdfunding $50,000 to launch the project.)

At any other time, Nason’s proposal might be easily dismissed as an overly simplified technocratic solution to a complicated systemic social problem. But proposals for centralized facilities like this for California’s homeless residents have been gaining momentum with local leaders—and their constituents—who are increasingly frustrated by the slow response to a snowballing crisis.

A vacant four-story mirror-glass building sits in the center of a large grassy lot, with warehouses for aircraft facilities in the background.
A former Federal Aviation Administration building near LAX is being considered by the Trump administration as a shelter facility.
Google Maps

Fairgrounds, decommissioned hospitals, and Caltrans properties are just a few of the state lands that California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered to be surveyed for their potential to host homelessness facilities last January. Now that survey is complete, with another executive order last week immediately opening recommended lands as emergency shelter sites. Similar uses for federal land and buildings have been suggested by the Trump administration. In September, a group of federal officials who toured homeless facilities in California were reportedly considering a plan to relocate 10,000 residents of LA’s Skid Row to a vacant federal building near the city’s airport.

Housing advocates fear that these moves mean a major federal crackdown is looming—one that, due to the delayed implementation of other solutions, will be not just welcomed but abetted by state and local officials.

As of last week, at least one major California city, Los Angeles, is cooperating with the federal government, according to a statement from Mayor Eric Garcetti, who says the city is working closely with the Trump administration on homeless solutions.

“We look forward to ongoing discussions that will demonstrate how our federal and local governments can become strong and steady partners in confronting a problem that affects cities across America,” wrote Garcetti in a letter addressed to Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

According to the annual federal report that compiles data from a nationwide count taken each January, the number of people experiencing homelessness in California during 2019 increased by just over 21,000, or 16.4 percent from the previous year, to about 151,000. The increase was enough to offset declines in 29 states, resulting in an overall increase of 2.7 percent nationally. The huge one-year jump is being attributed to skyrocketing rents, which continue to outpace wage increases.

Federal messaging about the homelessness report focused almost exclusively on California’s numbers. “Increase in California Higher Than All Other States Combined,” noted the Housing and Urban Development press release on the annual figures.

President Donald Trump posted several tweets telling California officials to “clean up their act” or he would “get involved.” Carson told Fox News’s Ed Henry that California cities should “uncuff law enforcement so that people can be removed now and placed in transitional places.”

In December, CityLab’s Kriston Capps reported that the federal government is poised to take unprecedented action on homelessness, with the White House currently moving forward on an executive order that would require cities to remove street encampments and force homeless residents into federal facilities—and take away housing funding for cities that refuse to comply.

Last week, Garcetti confirmed the city’s leadership is “working out a deal on homelessness” with the White House, requesting “potential federal land for housing and shelter development” and “leveraged resources” for public health needs from Carson, who tweeted that he was looking forward to a “new partnership” with Garcetti.

But Garcetti’s willingness to work with the Trump administration has created uneasiness among advocates in light of recent federal appointments.

In early December, the private consultant Robert Marbut was confirmed as the director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a pick that was widely condemned by advocates. Marbut is known for helping cities create large, centralized facilities that require homeless residents to move off the streets in order to receive food or services.

Proposals for this type of solution, known as “warehousing,” have become more prevalent in recent months across California, according to Matt Levin, who covers the state’s homelessness crisis for CalMatters. “I think it reflects a growing but unspoken sentiment among residents of even progressive places that warehousing-type solutions might be acceptable if it means visible homelessness is reduced,” he tells Curbed.

A rendering of a massive city in a rural setting shows tall apartment towers, a stadium and carnival rides, parkland and recreation facilities.
The 300-acre city proposed by Citizens Again would be located in rural California to avoid litigation from homeowners that has stopped other affordable housing projects.
Citizens Again

The federal proposals are not dissimilar to some solutions being discussed by local California leaders. In December, an Oakland, California, councilmember proposed turning a cruise ship into housing for 1,000 homeless people, and proposals have been floated over the last year to house homeless residents in military barracks and aircraft carriers.

“We do need more temporary shelter options,” says Anya Lawler, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and a member of the governor’s homelessness task force. “We need to get people inside.”

But how to go inside has to remain a choice for those experiencing homelessness, she acknowledges. “What we’re asking them to do is leave their community to come indoors and form another community.” Traditional temporary shelters aren’t always viable for people with partners, pets, or conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, she says. “It will only exacerbate the challenges they’re already dealing with.”

Although no specifics have been provided by HUD about exactly what kind of temporary shelter assistance might be provided to LA and other places, homeless service providers speculate that federal aid will be similar to what the state is offering: access to federal land or property, funding for services, and resources to build temporary housing, like the sprung structures currently used as emergency shelters in some cities.

“I believe they will make federal lands available for things like our sprung structure... immediate triage housing... and ask local nonprofits to operate them,” said Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, on KPCC’s AirTalk.

But where exactly those structures would be located and whether people would be forced to relocate to them are concerns to local homeless advocates like Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

“The last thing you’re going to do is carry your butt out to some remote area without any services, and without any of the networks that have kept you somewhat together,” says White. “Unless you’re talking about mandatory evacuations—and that’s what I’m calling them, evacuations—people aren’t leaving their communities.”

California cities are no longer able to criminalize sleeping on the street, thanks to a court ruling last year that some local leaders have said impedes their ability to clear encampments. In April, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses California, ruled in the case of Martin v. City of Boise that “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” Late last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, meaning the ruling stands—city leaders can’t criminalize homelessness unless they can demonstrate residents have access to adequate shelter.

White believes city leaders will respond to the ruling by proclaiming it has built the adequate number of shelter beds, then forcing people to move off the streets and into those shelters—or face jail time. “They would have you believe that people would want to leave,” he says.

A ballot measure proposed by a former California state legislator would create an alternate mechanism for funneling residents into housing facilities by establishing a special court just for homeless residents. Unhoused people would be sentenced to 364-day stays in public hospitals or mental health treatment centers for committing what are called “quality of life” crimes including panhandling, public intoxication, and squatting. This could technically be legal for a city to do as long as the city could prove it had provided enough beds.

At the same time, the state’s slow response to building those shelter beds may be speeding up. In December, Newsom released an additional $650 million in emergency homelessness funding for cities that his administration claimed had been held up by federal roadblocks related to HUD certifying the homeless point-in-time counts. (HUD finally released the data on December 20, 2019, much later in the year than usual.)

The state’s homelessness task force proposed a separate ballot measure this week that would allow the state to punish cities for failing to build enough shelter beds. “Why would we want to warehouse people?” task force member and LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas told the Los Angeles Times. “That was what was really in advocates’ craw. They were not appreciating that we don’t have to warehouse people.”

But lack of money or resources hasn’t been what’s stopped the rollout of services in some California cities. In many cases, even though state legislation has been introduced to streamline the neighborhood approval process, angry homeowners fighting against the facilities has been what’s slowed the construction of shelters.

A temporary structure hidden by a horizontal wood fence is shown in the foreground of gleaming glass skyscrapers.
Navigation centers in San Francisco that use sprung structures to provide shelter beds and services have been delayed by lawsuits from nearby homeowners.
Brock Keeling

That’s one way that a centralized proposal like Citizens Again would save the state money and keep people housed longer, argues Nason. Instead of going through the process of siting, funding, and building thousands of new temporary shelters, he says, the money and effort could be consolidated into a single permanent facility. One of the reasons Nason believes it should be in a rural area is to avoid pushback from existing neighbors.

But most of the state’s homeless residents live in dense metropolitan areas, and plans that shuffle people to marginal areas worry advocates.

“The Citizens Again proposal notes that ‘nothing like this has ever been tried before’, which isn’t quite right—120,000 Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into camps in rural areas during the Second World War,” says Tommy Newman, director of impact initiatives for the United Way of Greater LA. “The majority of people living outside last lived indoors in the same community. Concepts like Citizens Again ignore this fact and instead eviscerate any support network or family connections a person might have, which is not how we’ll end homelessness.”

Newman also notes that proposals to relocate people don’t address what is currently some cities’ biggest problem: People are falling into homelessness faster than they’re being housed. Every day in Los Angeles County, which is home to the country’s largest unsheltered homeless population, roughly 130 people are housed, but 150 people become homeless, he says. “Our collective focus should be on flipping that ratio by creating enough stable, permanent housing that people can afford, not moving lower-income people far away.”

The federal government exerts control over many of the programs that fund permanent housing and make existing housing more affordable. After a 2016 ballot measure increased funding for supportive housing in Los Angeles by $1.2 billion, it took the city more than three years to open its first new project. Cities need federal help to implement more immediate solutions, advocates say.

“The fundamental cause of homelessness is lack of access to safe and affordable homes,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who is calling for the federal government to fund expanded rental assistance, construction of apartments affordable to the lowest-income renters, and cash assistance to avoid evictions. “$3 billion could pay for rental assistance for over 330,000 people who are homeless, an evidence-based and proven solution to ending homelessness.”

At the state level, Lawler points to $1 billion set to be earmarked for homelessness in the state’s annual budget, including a $750 million one-time fund that would fund rental assistance, temporary housing, and services. “For us, that’s a great sign because we’ve long argued that we do need rental assistance for people at high risk of homelessness,” she says.

At the federal level, however, Carson has attempted to cut funding for rental assistance subsidies in recent years. He's also succeeded in rolling back Obama-era housing regulations that address segregation and discrimination, including an overhaul of the Disparate Impact rule, which has been the legal footing for housing discrimination lawsuits for decades.

Homelessness disproportionately impacts the racial groups those anti-discrimination policies were intended to help. A recent New York Times investigation found that African Americans make up 8 percent of Los Angeles County’s residents, but 42 percent of its homeless population.

White, who is working with LA officials to create housing solutions for unhoused Angelenos on city-owned land, says cooperating with the current federal government is like making a “deal with the devil.”

“How can you have Carson, Trump, and now Marbut, and think that’s going to lead somewhere good at the same time you have children at the border being detained in camps?” says White.

Lawler understands some advocates’ hesitation to trust an intervention from the federal government, which she agrees “does not center civil rights at the top of its agenda.” But the mandate from the state’s task force is clear, she says: “Obviously for us the goal is to ensure that our extremely low-income clients can gain access to permanent housing that is safe, stable, and something that they can afford over the long term.”