Stop Blaming Nonprofits for the Failures of Los Angeles and LA County

Activists holding signs about homelessness, including ‘LA CITY,’ ‘LA COUNTY,’ and ‘Who is in Charge of Homelessness?

Californians pay a boatload of taxes to both the city and county of Los Angeles. Annual tax revenue amounts to billions of dollars.

Twice now, we have voted to tax ourselves even more to address homelessness, and yet homelessness continues to skyrocket. L.A. has the dubious distinction of being the homeless capital of the world, and this has happened on the watch of current city and county administrations. Even some of the poorest cities in the world do not have more than 75,000 homeless people. L.A. residents aren’t inherently more mentally ill or struggling more with substance abuse than people in other places, but our numbers keep moving in the wrong direction.

Government agencies fund nonprofit organizations to fill gaps in services that government agencies legally are required to provide. But now, nonprofits are shouldering the burden of the government’s failures and serving as easy scapegoats for a broken, inhumane system.

Scapegoating has become a scourge. Agencies are given finite sums to meet an unlimited need and are trashed when they can’t do everything. Meanwhile, city and county officials often wash their hands of their responsibilities and place blame on everyone but themselves.

Enough is enough. L.A. County should provide all of the mental health and addiction services that homeless nonprofits currently need. L.A. city needs to expedite and fund the repairs of buildings that can house the homeless. Federal, state, and local governments are responsible for providing enough funding to subsidize, staff, and maintain facilities, but they don’t follow through far too often.

Vilifying certain nonprofits that do everything in their power to help homeless people is a convenient way for governments to shirk their responsibilities and throw many of their constituents under the bus.

Single room occupancy (SRO) units, in particular, are the lowest-hanging fruit available to get people housed as quickly as possible, but the city has allowed thousands of units to remain empty or fall into ruin. The least expensive form of non-subsidized rental housing, SRO units allow tenants in need to rent single rooms rather than full apartments they cannot afford.

In L.A., after all, the average monthly rent is more than $2,700, so SRO units represent a lifeline, albeit one with disturbingly untapped potential. Why are there thousands of these unused or decaying units in our city?

That’s on the government and the government alone. Of course, the blame game is always a loser. However, government is — by definition — the people’s safety net, and that net has been shredded in Los Angeles. Without careful plans and mutual cooperation, it will collapse altogether.

It isn’t a mystery why L.A., despite being a land of riches, is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the provision of affordable housing. Extreme corruption prevails. In addition, media incompetence (or bias) is rampant, and real estate developers remain greedily intent on providing luxury housing above all else.

Unfortunately, corruption in L.A. isn’t just about handing out garbage bags stuffed with cash to City Council members, but also handing lucrative zoning exemptions to corporate developers that offer no affordable units.

At what point will Californians finally hold the culprits accountable? Historic SROs are entry-level housing units that provide basic safety and stability to the unhoused, and they have done so for more than 100 years. We cannot build our way out of the housing affordability and homelessness crises at $700,000 per unit because the money will run out quickly. At $100,000 per unit for SROs, on the other hand, we can house many homeless people in the area permanently.

We need to marshal every available resource immediately if we are sincere about addressing this humanitarian crisis. The housing affordability crisis has never been more critical, and not only for homeless people. About 80 percent of low-income L.A. renters pay more than half their income toward housing costs, and they at least have homes.

The rent is “too damn high.” And, without actual rent control, we will continue churning out more homelessness.

L.A. didn’t get here accidentally. Bad policy is the source of our current crisis, and without systemic change, we will sink deeper into a hellish nightmare of hundreds of thousands living on our sidewalks.

The city and the county are responsible for their own failures. Let’s demand change — now, not later.

Michael Weinstein, the author of this article, is the president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. AHF is the parent organization of Housing Is A Human Right.