With 60,000 individuals forced onto the street, Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the country. The city has had a long and complicated relationship with its homeless community and recently, as the number of homeless in the city skyrocket, more residents are calling for something to be done. Unfortunately, in a recent poll, 65% of LA county citizens agreed that the police should have a more active role in clearing the streets of the homeless population. This position entirely lacks compassion and understanding of the housing crisis in Los Angeles — homeless people should, and can, be housed and assisted instead of criminalized.
The notion that homelessness should be criminalized is despicable. The most vulnerable members of the population should not be penalized for being in a position they were forced into by the current systems in place. Seeing as California has the third highest rental rates on average and the fourth highest income inequality in the nation with no meaningful rent control, it’s no surprise that people are continuously struggling to find and hold onto housing. Taking into account that many homeless people have mental health issues that could be treated if they had access to care, only a monster would enact policy lacking compassion toward those without housing. Luckily, past precedent has protected the right of homeless individuals to sleep on the streets, but with public opinion turning sour, the circumstances homeless people find themselves in may soon get much worse.
LA can almost certainly solve this crisis, and they can do so with eminent domain. Eminent domain is a practice in which the government seizes a property or resource from a private owner, paying them a one time sum equal to the market price for its use.The last five-year estimate showed LA holds 93,535 housing units that have been vacant for long periods of time, far more than the estimated 60,000 homeless denizens of the city. The city can and should seize those empty units through eminent domain laws and convert them into permanent homeless shelters and affordable housing.
The use of eminent domain may seem radical, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Los Angeles city government utilized the practice for humanitarian city development. In 2017 the city greenlit the use of eminent domain to take unutilized areas of south LA from a developer in favor of the creation of a mixed-use project that will include schools, a transit hub and affordable housing for a struggling community. The homeless population needs assistance similar to the help that community was given. The landlords will be fine.
Los Angeles should not follow the example of its neighbor to the south, Orange County, which has continuously constrained the activities of the homeless, including arresting them for being in certain public spaces. The Orange County Supervisor has stated that the county should not be responsible for housing the homeless and has repeatedly fought for the legal ability to arrest and ship their homeless to Victorville. This inhuman treatment of the homeless should not be emulated anywhere else.
The plight of the homeless has caught national attention as democratic candidate Bernie Sanders proposed a plan to end homelessness in America by making housing a right. Bernie’s plan includes $2.5 trillion of federal investment into the creation of 10 million affordable housing units, tackling not only housing for the homeless but also for low-income and struggling families all across the nation. Combined with his Medicare for All plan, which guarantees free mental health care, it may be the combination needed to lift many people out of the crushing situations they are in. That being said, in the event that a candidate like Bernie is not elected, cities with high levels of homelessness like LA need to be ready and willing to invest and do the heavy lifting themselves if there is any hope of solving the housing issue.
Los Angeles does not have a housing crisis — it has a moral crisis. There are far more empty rental units in LA than homeless people. The city can choose to listen to those lacking compassion for the most downtrodden in society and make the behaviors necessary to survive as a homeless person illegal, or it can do everything in its power to pull as many of those individuals as possible out of the hopelessness the current systems have forced them into. This is a moral choice. Seeing the tents and shantytowns of this disadvantaged population should weigh heavy on one’s heart, not because they are “disgusting” or “disruptive,” but because there is so much more that can be done to help them that isn’t being done.