GUEST COMMENTARY - Many critics of our region’s response to homelessness often refer to the “homeless-industrial-complex.” I believe it’s important to define the term. The definition of an industrial complex is a closed-loop, self-sustaining system where the suppliers of a product control demand by establishing interlocking relationships with those who purchase their goods. The original military-industrial complex capitalized on the United States’ voracious demand for Cold War-era military hardware by developing ever more complex and expensive weapons. Millions of jobs and billions of dollars depended on creating a constant demand for new weaponry, regardless of actual need. Quite often, the leadership of those producing the weapons and those who were buying them were interchangeable. Defense industry executives became senior leaders in the Department of Defense and former DoD leaders became lobbyists or corporate executives. Controlling the narrative about defense was key to sustaining and growing the military industrial complex. By convincing the public the Soviet Union and China also had massive weapons programs aimed at destroying the United States, the military-industrial complex created the political support needed to sustain itself. The symbology of an existential threat to the American way of life was a powerful tool in creating the perception that we need a huge arsenal of weaponry.
Symbology is a key element in any industrial complex. For the military-industrial complex, it was the symbol of worldwide communism. For the homeless industrial complex, it is the symbol of the unhoused as hapless victims of forces beyond their control. This in no way suggests most homeless people choose homelessness or deserve to be homeless. There are indeed economic and social changes that must be addressed to solve the root causes of poverty and homelessness. Almost anyone can find themselves on the edge of homelessness; the question is why aren’t the local and regional agencies responsible for reducing homelessness making any progress?
The answer is tragically simple; to sustain its model of homeless intervention, known as Housing First, the homeless industrial complex has created a system that—intentionally or unintentionally-- incentivizes keeping people on the street. And the key to maintaining that system is treating the homeless as symbols rather than unique human beings who need individualized assistance. Many so-called advocates will tell you the homeless camps are necessary so the rest of us “see the homeless” in our community and will then allow Housing First proponents to build permanent housing in locations and of a type the advocates find acceptable.
If this sounds like a wild-eyed right-wing conspiracy theory, consider the following:
- A key trait of an industrial complex is interchangeable leadership. As noted in recent media reports, LAHSA’s new CEO is the former Director of St. Joseph Center, a major recipient of homelessness relief funds. At the City level, Mayor Bass has surrounded herself with Housing First advocates who have controlled the narrative for years, and convinced our leaders the only way to solve homelessness is to build our way out of it, despite hard evidence to the contrary.
- Kenneth Mejia, L.A.’s new City Controller and a vocal Housing First advocate, hired Ashley Bennet as his head of his Homeless Program Oversight office. Ms. Bennet, a former LAHSA employee, is an aggressive proponent of Housing First, and is more than willing to use homeless people as symbols. She is well known for confronting authorities during encampment clean-ups and advocating for people to be left in squalid camps rather than relocated to shelters she defines as unacceptable. Under Mejia she is now supposed to be providing impartial analyses of homelessness programs.
- In at least one contract, the City of Los Angeles compensates a field service provider based on the number of encounters with unhoused people. There is no incentive to move people from the streets to shelter as quickly as possible. Rather, the provider can use the “need to establish relationships” with the unhoused before they are sheltered, and often return time and again with no results.
- While advocates label anything less than permanent (and expensive) housing as “carceral” or “warehousing”, there is ample evidence the homeless themselves will accept a wide range of shelter. A recent RAND Corp. survey found that while 87% of the unhoused surveyed prefer permanent housing, 83% would accept living in a shelter or hotel if they had some privacy. Even 49% said they would accept tent living with privacy. Like anyone else, the unhoused want something clean, safe, and organized, but advocates don’t seem terribly interested in what the homeless themselves have to say.
- In terms of economic justice, homeless camps are useful symbols for those who see homelessness as a consequence of an unfair economic system. Rather than looking inward at the manifold failures of L.A.’s homeless intervention system, they blame outward factors like increasing economic disparity and high housing costs, while conveniently ignoring other expensive cities like San Diego and New York, where there are far fewer people on the streets.
- In the homeless as symbols narrative, there is little room for the voices of the homeless themselves. There are too many inconvenient truths among the unhoused population, such as far higher rates of mental illness and addiction, than advocates choose to recognize. Like so many other voices of reality, Jess Echeverry, leader of SOFESA, a West L.A. homelessness organization, is often unheard. Formerly homeless herself, she advocates giving the homeless a voice in how they should be treated, including the dignity of being treated as a responsible member of the community regardless of housing status. It’s a powerful 32-minute interview that exposes many of the underpinnings of the homeless industrial complex.
Unless and until our civic leaders are willing to recognize how the current system perpetuates, rather than reduces, homelessness, we will continue to see growing numbers of the unhoused and continued demands for more funding from the agencies who stand the most to gain from the status quo. All the while, five people per night die on our streets.
(Tim Campbell is a semi-retired public sector performance audit manager, who knows about successful and failed programs, a resident of Westchester who lives with the real-world results of years of poor policy decisions every day.)