The Homegrown Crisis California Refuses to Own

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Tommy Newman from United Way Los Angeles Photo courtesy of Newman

Anyone who’s spent even a short period of time in California’s cities will immediately notice there’s a homelessness crisis that’s been growing to stunning proportions in recent years. The reasoning that’s often thrown around is that people who become homeless travel to the Golden State, where presumably due to the weather, some of the difficulties of living without a roof over one’s head are blunted. Yet, this, like most justifications of 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 with the nonprofit United Way, points out, a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in California, earning it the shameful moniker of “Homeless Capital of America,” and that’s not the only staggering number related to the issue.

“About 70% of the people who are living outside last lived indoors in L.A. County, and of that subset, 50 %lived here for more than a decade indoors,” says Newman on the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence. 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 home-grown challenge,” the lawyer tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer. “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.”

The state’s four-term governor Jerry Brown found the crisis so dire that, as Newman points out, he thought we’d solve climate change sooner than homelessness. Newman, however, isn’t willing to give up on addressing 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, that aimed to create homeless and affordable housing for thousands, passed in the miraculous span of four months. Part of these efforts were documented in the 2018 film, The Advocates, where Newman appears, and which is available for viewing on streaming services. While the progress springing off these policies will take time, Newman warns, it will take place.

One of the main difficulties One Way and others who advocate for helping homeless people face is how Californians feel about housing, especially one specific group.

“It’s white people who are primarily the challenge on this housing question,” Newman tells Scheer. “White people support more multi-family 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 as one that gets to the core of our humanity.

“I do want to encourage people to realize that we are actually talking about a notion of what is civilization,” says Scheer. “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 on of the Golden State’s most shameful failures to date.



Joshua Scheer