The Slums of California

Nearly everyone in California has an opinion about the homelessness crisis, but very few people have a realistic vision of what to do about it. In the Bay Area and Los Angeles, where thousands of people sleep on the streets or in tent encampments every night, one of the more popular proposals has been to build many new units of temporary shelter. These take many forms: tiny-home villages that provide a shed-size house for two residents, repurposed hotel rooms and “Safe Sleep” sites where people can move into tents. The idea is to continue to scatter these various units throughout mostly low-income areas of cities, especially those that have been overtaken by unofficial homeless encampments.

When I wrote about tiny homes in December, one of my editors asked me if I thought what was being built were modern slums. This was an intriguing question that I’ve given quite a bit of thought to over the past few months. These sites are supposed to be a temporary bridge between the streets and permanent housing. But given the difficulty or, in many cases, unwillingness to build new housing in California cities or even to acquire existing housing for the homeless at a rate that keeps up with the problem, the “bridge” is likely to go nowhere.

The temporary shelters do provide a host of services, including meals, bathrooms, drug addiction and mental health support, family counseling and job placement. But the mere offering of services doesn’t mean that what’s being built doesn’t qualify as a slum, especially if the assistance isn’t provided consistently or effectively. There are, after all, services in plenty of slums around the world.

Last week, a fire broke out at one of Oakland’s tiny-home villages. These feature a series of 64-square-foot modified FEMA disaster shelters. Different versions of these sites have popped up in several states across the country, including Wisconsin, Arizona and Washington, but the bulk of the business has been in California cities, where local politicians have embraced them as a solution to the state’s sprawling homeless encampments.

Nobody was hurt, but three tiny homes were destroyed and some residents lost all their belongings.

The next day, San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced legislation that would provide shelter for every unhoused person in the city. At the last official count, in 2019, there were over 8,000 homeless people in the city, more than 5,000 of whom were unsheltered, meaning they live on the street or, in many cases, in a tent encampment. If the bill passes, thousands of new temporary shelters, including tiny homes, converted hotels and Safe Sleep sites (secure tent villages set up by the city), will be put up throughout San Francisco.

At first glance, this would seem like good news for the homeless population and its advocates. Temporary shelters allow the city and mostly nonprofit organizations to track people, try to get them the help they need and eventually find them a permanent place to stay. Permanent, congregate shelters, on the other hand, are expensive and can take years to build, mostly because of neighborhood resistance and all the usual bureaucratic processes that slow down construction. Temporary shelters are much cheaper and faster to construct and don’t set off lengthy political fights.

Mandelman told me that his plan is to build 1,000 to 2,000 shelter beds in the next three years. He said that everyone deserves a form of shelter but admitted that much of his motivation comes from the 2018 appeals court ruling in Martin v. City of Boise,which made it illegal for cities to enforce anti-camping ordinances if there were more homeless people than available shelter beds in the city.

What this means practically in California is that if a city has, say, 100 people living in an encampment and only 30 available beds for them to sleep in, the city cannot clear the space unless it can offer those remaining 70 people a bed. When residents or even tourists ask why nobody is doing anything about the tent encampments that have sprouted up throughout the state, the answer is most likely that the cities they’re in cannot legally do so because they haven’t provided enough potential shelter. Temporary shelters like tiny homes and Safe Sleep sites give lawmakers a relatively cheap way to start clearing the tents.

“We have to be able to get a handle on our public spaces and make them usable for everyone,” Mandelman said. “I think Boise is the most significant impediment, but I think Boise just reflects a basic humanitarian point, which is it is unfair to be criminalizing behaviors that are associated with homelessness if you aren’t offering people a way to not be homeless.”

Mandelman’s 2,000 beds, of course, do not cover the 5,000 unsheltered San Franciscans, but he believes that a large portion of this population does not want to live in a temporary shelter. And because Mandelman is interpreting Boise to say that you need to have available beds only for people who want them, he believes that 2,000 will easily cover the actual demand for shelter.

This will be expensive. Given that Mandelman estimates that 500 beds require about $20 million per year to keep up, 2,000 beds could run in the vicinity of $80 million a year. That said, voters have consistently named homelessness as one of the top concerns in the state, and billions of dollars have been budgeted toward solutions.

What Mandelman called the “sticker shock” isn’t really the most pressing issue when it comes to homelessness. What’s more concerning is what happens after the shelters are built. Because it’s unlikely that there will be enough permanent housing soon, the question becomes: How long will the government have the political will to provide assistance for these people? What does “temporary” really mean? Plus, services like drug counseling, mental health treatment and job support aren’t abstract concepts. They require a great deal of infrastructure, staff and expertise, all of which are currently hard to find.

“There isn’t capacity to handle the shelter beds we have now,” Shanti Singh, a San Francisco tenant and housing justice organizer, told me. “Setting aside the fact that the nonprofits that are contracted to run these services are strained fiscally, they also have a lot of turnover and staff vacancies.”

Mandelman does not dispute this. “That is an undeniable problem,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to meet this need. So if it means using public workers to do it, I guess we will have to bite the bullet and do that. If it means providing more resources to the nonprofits that are doing this work, to hire and retain people, then we need to do that.”

On March 14, the San Francisco Labor Council tweeted that the city and county had over 3,800 unfilled job positions. So civic workers are already overworked and understaffed with no real relief in sight. The problem is that there aren’t that many people, period, who will sign up to work with the homeless.

Mandelman also admits that there has been a wide range in the quality of third-party service providers who have worked with the homeless in San Francisco. Speaking of the Safe Sleep sites that popped up in the city during the pandemic, Mandelman said: “There were some that were very well managed, because they were adequately staffed and they were safe, and they were not a problem for the people in them or for the surrounding area. And there were others that were dystopian and not adequately staffed.” The difference was most likely the service provider. Some of the nonprofits that work with San Francisco’s homeless have already come under scrutiny and drawn the ire of activists and homelessness organizations for the allegedly opaque way they are awarded contracts and the qualifications of some of their workers.

Mandelman, like many politicians in the Bay Area, understands that his political future depends on how he deals with the homeless encampments in his district. The progressive politics and deep activist presence in San Francisco make it difficult just to remove the unsheltered, and Boise also ties his hands. But it’s also clear to anyone who has walked around San Francisco that something must be done that preserves the dignity of the unhoused, gets them the help they need and provides a pathway toward permanent housing. In the first year of the pandemic, deaths among homeless people doubled. Eighty-two percent of the fatalities came from drug overdoses, mostly fentanyl. These people need help and it’s unclear if a big, desperate push for temporary shelter, especially one motivated by the desire to fulfill Boise, will solve the problem.

It’s possible that this situation can be alleviated by Mandelman’s plan. But it also seems possible that these temporary shelter sites will become more or less permanent. (A tiny-home site in Tacoma, Wash., for example, has been running since 2019.) According to Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, the general rule is that you need three units of permanent housing for each shelter bed you create. “What you want to do is invest in housing so you can move people through the shelter into housing,” she said. “Otherwise, people are stuck in shelter forever, the shelters fill up, and then the next person who becomes homeless is on the streets.”

The downsides here are considerable. Even if Mandelman’s plan works and every encampment has been cleared from the streets of the city, how long will voters tolerate the high costs to keep the shelters running? With less investment, services and upkeep will almost certainly degrade from the erratic level they are at now. The fire in Oakland was an accident, and there’s no reason to believe that it was the fault of the city or the organization that runs the tiny-home site. But without good oversight, those types of disasters will take place more frequently in densely packed areas of extreme poverty. Without enough stable housing on the other side, what was supposed to be temporary shelter becomes permanent purgatory.

What would you call that? A slum.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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