A $17 million shelter for the homeless that recently opened in Los Angeles has been drawing sharp criticism from advocates for the homeless.
Midnight Mission, a private organization, opened the shelter in April. In addition to sleeping areas, it includes a gymnasium, library, playroom, hair salon, education center, professional kitchen, and 500-seat dining room.
Officials at several national and local organizations that work for the homeless say they believe the construction of shelters does little, if anything, to reduce homelessness. They instead prefer to see money go toward permanent housing, regardless of whether the money is raised privately or provided publicly.
They are especially upset at the amount spent on the new Los Angeles shelter.
Price Tag Startling
“The price tag for this shelter caught a lot of people off guard,” said Michael Stoops, acting executive director at the National Coalition for the Homeless. “You could house a lot of people permanently with that amount of money.”
Stoops said experience shows “emergency shelters are not the solution to ending homelessness. Elaborate and expensive multi-service programs do not address the root causes. If acts of mercy and charity and volunteerism were the solutions, we would have licked this problem 25 years ago.”
He said that is why many advocates for the homeless prefer the focus shift from shelters to permanent housing. “People can’t stay at a shelter forever,” he said.
Housing Might Save Money
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, agrees that public and private agencies need to address affordable housing.
“On the budget side, housing is a complicated issue,” she said. “There is a capital aspect and an operating aspect to it. For poor people, generally speaking, the majority of them can’t afford even to cover operating expenses. They need an operating subsidy to keep them housed.
“That’s an ongoing item that most budget people don’t like,” Roman continued. “The offset is that if we don’t stably house people, this causes all kinds of other costs.”
Those costs include increased health care spending, prison spending, substance abuse treatment, and other services, she said, citing a University of Pennsylvania study issued in 2001. That study, known as the New York/New York Initiative, tracked 5,000 homeless mentally ill persons in New York over five years. Among the findings: The public costs of a homeless mentally ill person in New York City totaled about $40,000 a year.
Tax Code Changes Hurt
Roman puts part of the blame for homelessness on tax code changes that have pushed private real estate developers away from building low-cost housing, particularly apartment buildings.
“In the 1970s there was an adequate supply of affordable housing, and we didn’t have widespread homelessness. The private sector can’t make money at it anymore because of tax code changes in the 1980s,” Roman said. “It’s all done by non-profits and government now.”
She also said redevelopment projects in many cities and older suburbs are destroying what remains of affordable housing in urban areas.
Facilities Stretched Thin
Midnight Mission officials said they decided to build the mission because demand for services had stretched existing facilities too thin.
The large dining room in the new shelter should put an end to food lines. The shelter also offers the area’s first 24-hour public restrooms.
“We have long felt that one major component missing in our drug and alcohol rehabilitation was a physical dimension to recovery,” Mission spokesman Orlando Ward told reporter Daniel B. Wood for an April 18 article in The Christian Science Monitor. “In the past, we would address the spiritual and the emotional but were neglecting real physical activity, which we feel is important to rebuilding the whole man.”
Opinions Remain Divided
But local activist Ted Hayes told Ward the shelter “only helps to keep the cycle of homelessness going with what we call the ‘homeless industrial complex.’ A big fancy operation like this only maintains the bank accounts and lifestyles of those who run them and helps donors rid themselves of guilt.”
Stoops and Roman were not so harsh in their criticism. Both said Midnight Mission is a good agency that provides valuable help to the area’s homeless. But they did question the expense of the new facility.
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.