Tommy Newman: The Homegrown Crisis California Refuses to Own
Anyone who has spent even a short period of time in California’s cities will immediately notice the homelessness crisis that has grown to stunning proportions in recent years. The “explanation” that’s often thrown around is that people who become homeless travel to the Golden State, where, presumably, the mild weather blunts some of the difficulties of living without a roof over one’s head. But this, like most justifications for 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 and a senior director at the nonprofit United Way, points out in the latest installment of the “Scheer Intelligence” podcast, a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in California, earning it the shameful moniker of “Homeless Capital of America.”
That’s not the only staggering number related to the issue. “About 70% of the people who are living outside [in Los Angeles County] last lived indoors in L.A. County, and of that subset, 50% lived here for more than a decade indoors,” Newman tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on the podcast. 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 homegrown challenge,” he says. “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.
Jerry Brown, the state’s four-term governor, considered the crisis so dire that, as Newman points out, he thought that climate change would be solved sooner than homelessness. Newman, however, isn’t willing to give up on 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—aimed at creating affordable housing for thousands—passed in the miraculous span of four months. The efforts to pass these measures were documented in the 2018 film “The Advocates,” in which Newman appears, and which is available for viewing on streaming services. While the progress springing from these policies will take time, Newman warns, it will take place.
One of the main difficulties faced by United Way and others who advocate for helping homeless people is how Californians feel about housing, especially one specific group that is stuck on a suburban Nimbyism and rejects zoning for more affordable multifamily housing.
“It’s white people who are primarily the challenge on this housing question,” Newman tells Scheer. “White people support more multifamily 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 amid blatant affluence as one that gets to the core of our humanity.
“The fact of the matter is, we’re kind of in this Dickens world of London,” Scheer says. “We have extreme wealth in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and points in between. And yet we have the most abject misery.
“I do want to encourage people to realize that we are actually talking about a notion of what is civilization,” he adds. “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.”
In the media player above, listen to the full discussion between Scheer and Newman about the political, social and economic factors contributing to the Golden State’s most shameful failures to date. You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, kind of the poor man’s CIA, and where the intelligence comes from our guests. In this case, Tommy Newman. And I only know Tommy because there’s a movie that the United Way, which he’s connected with–he’s now Senior Director of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. But there’s a movie called The Advocates, and it’s about really dedicated human beings, young people, who work to try to figure out: Who are these homeless people that are humps of humanity around us here in Los Angeles? And really, in every other major city, some minor cities? Are they alive or dead? What’s the explanation, why don’t we care? You think of the Good Samaritan in Luke, and Jesus saying if you want to get to heaven, care about that person that’s at the side of the road, and that’s been robbed or beaten or abandoned. And yet we don’t. And when I saw that movie, The Advocates, I just felt–guilt is not the right word. I just felt, what is wrong with me? Me–and forget about the society, forget about everything else. How do I coexist with this extreme state of deprivation of human beings? Yes, it happens elsewhere; it happens with immigrants at the border now, it happens with refugees. But right here, in the center of one of the most prosperous cities in the world–and certainly San Francisco is another incredibly prosperous city, and yet if you’re in downtown San Francisco, you go to the Salesforce building, and right around it is a whole encampment at night. So let me ask you about that. You’re a product of this California culture; you work for the United Way; you’re an attorney, educated in California at a good Catholic institution, University of San Francisco; you went to Loyola High School. And so your religion, your humanity, would tell you this is unacceptable. So how come we’ve accepted it in this deep blue, progressive, democratic-controlled state of California?
Tommy Newman: Well, I appreciate you having me, and I appreciate starting here, starting at the very basic component of this, which is humanity and human beings, because that’s where we should start. We’ve accepted it so far because the benefits that enough people receive from the housing policies we have, the economic policies we have, outweighed the shame that we felt by knowing that Skid Row existed–but we didn’t have to drive there, and if we didn’t see it, it was out of sight and it was out of mind. But we hit a tipping point on the consequences of those terrible housing policies, on the consequences of those economic policies. And in L.A., across the state of California, all of a sudden homelessness is everywhere. We have 6,000 people living in the San Fernando Valley in cars and RVs on what were once bucolic, ranch-home streets. And so all of a sudden, we hit this tipping point, and everybody looked around and said, what the hell’s going on and how did this happen? It happened—
RS: We’re the homeless capital of America.
TN: We are, yeah, the state of California.
RS: Give me those statistics.
TN: Twenty-five percent of the people experiencing homelessness in the United States are in the state of California.
RS: Now, part of that is explained by the state’s defenders as, if you’re going to be homeless, you don’t want to be where there’s snow or extreme heat. You know, leave New York City and go to Los Angeles; it’s easier to live on the street or near the beach. But that only takes you so far.
TN: Which isn’t very far. About 70 percent of the people who are living outside last lived indoors in L.A. County, and of that subset, 50 percent lived here for more than a decade indoors. So this is a home-grown challenge. 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.
RS: So that’s really a rationalization–for a failure–
TN: Yes. There are a lot of rationalizations.
RS: OK. So let’s cut to the chase here. The fact of the matter is, we’re kind of in this Dickens world of London once. I mean, we have extreme wealth in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and points in between. And yet we have the most abject misery. Hunks of–that’s the only way I can describe it, because unless you’re one of those social worker types, and the advocates, and willing to go into the tent, most of the time you’re skirting around these people. And you don’t even worry about–I just, I just happened to, getting here today, I went by the federal courthouse, the brand-new federal courthouse. I think it cost a half-billion dollars to build, right in downtown L.A. on First Street. And I looked over on the right, and there was a human being, a leg stuck out and an arm stuck out–is he alive, dead? Some of his belongings and some garbage around him–right in front of the federal courthouse, in L.A. And that’s the norm. Skid Row, as you referred to it, now goes for miles! Miles. When they broke up Occupy Wall Street in downtown L.A., the complaint was well, we have these unsightly people committing crimes–that was why, because it was right within the purview of City Hall and a county, state building. But we have miles! So you deal with the business community; you deal with the elite. What is the response?
TN: And not just the business community. I mean, I think United Way sits in an interesting place. United Way is approaching its hundredth anniversary in L.A., and for the first–hmm, 80 years, people gave United Way money because the internet didn’t exist, and they didn’t know how to give charitably. And so they gave it to United Way, and they trusted United Way to give that money out to community organizations that needed it. And that was across the spectrum, from the SPCA to an education group to a homelessness group. And about 10 years ago, this United Way in L.A.–somewhat distinct from the other United Ways–said, OK, we’re going to move on from that and we’re going to focus on three core issues, this being one of them. So started working on this issue 10 years ago. And interestingly, at that point in time there were 80–
RS: Just out of curiosity, what are the other two core?
TN: Education and economic stability.
RS: And so they’re all connected, in a way.
TN: They’re connected, that’s right. Looking upstream on the issue. Because if you’re only focusing on the people you see lying on the sidewalk, you’re missing the point. There’s a whole lot of things that happen before that person ended up lying on the sidewalk. So the point is, we started 10 years ago, and there were about 80 homeless service providers, social service organizations, nonprofit organizations, in L.A. County who were doing this work, each with their own database, their own set of criteria, their own list–there was no coordination across those in any way. So 10 years ago, we decided to focus on this issue and build a common set of tools, narrative, database, so that everybody could talk to each other. And what we very quickly learned in that early exercise, as United Way was bringing folks together, was that we were not helping the people that needed the help the most. And in fact, we did a comparison exercise; we built a database, a list based on, you know, clear questions: How did you end up experiencing homelessness? What’s your history of trauma? And then we compared the people who were on that list, on Skid Row, against the people who were showing up at a new building, a new affordable housing building that was opening up. And what we saw was that the people who needed to be in that apartment the most were not the ones who were showing up to fill out the rental paperwork, and offer their Social Security card, and provide their rent history. Two different worlds. And so that was United Way’s start as we got into this, and that was about 10 years ago. We built a foundation that we could then invest dollars in, and this gets to, I think, a question that you’ve been sort of hinting at, which is until 2016, there was no local revenue source in the city or county of Los Angeles dedicated to homelessness. When times were good, we’d sprinkle a little bit of the general fund on the issue, and when times were not good, we didn’t. There was no consistent, guaranteed money to build up a system–of the capacity that it needs to be in a county of 10 million people–to address what is going to happen when people’s lives fall apart, when they stop making money, when they have a sickness or a disability, when the healthcare system drives them into bankruptcy–which is happening quite a bit, and continues to happen.
RS: Well, according to the Federal Reserve, one of their recent studies, some 40 percent of the population is only 300 bucks or 400 bucks away from such disaster.
TN: Exactly right.
RS: And so I love your perspective, because frankly, I think the United Way deserves credit for being sort of this focal point of concern. I respect that. However, for all of the prestige of United Way, and for all of their great ties with the business community–you have a partnership with–and you’ve been successful in passing legislation. I mean, my hat’s off to you–Proposition H and double H, or whatever, you got the county, you got the city–
TN: Within four months, two ballot measures. For the first time ever in the history of the county of Los Angeles.
RS: Yeah, you–yes, and a majority of the people said yes, we want to spend, in one case over a billion dollars on this, and–
TN: To build housing.
RS: Yeah, to build housing, to support–so here is not a case where the population, at least in general, doesn’t want to do something. They know we have a problem. You can’t live in California and not know, whether you’re rural or urban, that you’ve got a great problem. And it used to be for a long time we said, oh, well, the problem is we’re not taking care of mentally deranged people, or something, and there were a lot of–well, now we see, no. These people may get deranged by being on the street and living in tents, but the fact is we’re talking about ordinary people. We’re talking about people we know, or could know, or it could be us. That’s the big shift.
TN: That’s the truth.
RS: And on the other hand–on the other hand, even though the voters actually voted to spend money and do something, they don’t want these people in their neighborhood. And one program–we’re doing this for KCRW, and there was a very good KCRW program on homelessness that you participated in. And all of the members of the City Council said, well, we’re going to build housing. I forget the figure, it was 222 people were going to be taken in by a certain–
TN: Two hundred and twenty-two units of supportive housing, the type of housing we need for the folks who are in the worst shape, by July 2020, which is the first set of goals towards a 10,000-unit goal.
RS: OK. So that’s not a heck of a lot of housing for an individual councilman to be able to get going in their district.
TN: Yeah, it seems reasonable.
RS: And the fact is, yes, in the districts that are already heavily impacted, they got the housing; they’re going to have it for that very modest quota. But in the districts where they want it to be someone else’s problem, they didn’t come up with even that miserable amount.
TN: Well, I still have a year left to go, so I’m not ready to give up.
RS: And if I could throw in a more pessimistic point, we’ve had what some people refer to as the May Massacre in the legislature here. And let’s just cut to the chase, because this is the season to blame Trump and right-wing conservatives for everything. The fact of the matter is, for a liberal democrat, California is the golden state in every sense. And the–I mean, liberal democrats in California control all the legislative branch, the governor, most of the representatives in the federal government, and so forth. They have a two-thirds majority, quite often, in the legislature–
TN: Yeah, we just took over Orange County.
RS: Yes, took over Orange County. And the last governor, the current governor, they all talk about homelessness being our biggest problem. And they’re not doing diddly about it, and in fact in May, despite the results of that election and so forth, every single bill of substance was defeated. So even though the voters said let’s spend money on this problem, the politicians don’t go for it. And the main reason they don’t go for it is they want a dumping ground. They don’t want to spread around the problem; they don’t want people in their district. And I think probably one of the most powerful legislators, who’s head of the appropriations committee, has been pointed out–he was a mayor of a small, affluent district where they didn’t build one unit of housing.
RS: Is it–so what is the key to the problem, is that we in this very enlightened state–for instance, Kamala Harris, who’s running for president now, it’s been pointed out when she was district attorney she was quite punitive towards homeless people. So where is the–where, what happened to liberalism in this state?
TN: This is the–this is where we started, when I pointed out the conflict between preserving the sort of bucolic way of life that we perceive California to be, everybody with their single-family home. Seventy-five percent of the land in the city of Los Angeles is zoned for a single-family home. That’s unsustainable. That’s not going to work. That’s not going to support a growth-based economy, which is ostensibly what we’re all working towards. So this is the conflict between the people who hold the power–single-family homeowners, by and large; that’s who drives the decisions of elected officials, because those are the people who show up in a primary election–and preserving that way of life, up against the consequences. Which is that two-thirds–three-quarters, really, in the most recent homeless count, got to update my numbers–of the people experiencing homelessness just need a place they can’t afford. One-quarter are the folks who have a severe mental illness, have some sort of substance abuse issue. And so when we look at homelessness and we talk about this challenge, we need to break it into those two pieces to start, because there are different solutions for each. There’s the supportive housing; that’s the thing that we’re trying to build, that’s what the 222 goal–and I’m going to get there. Have me back in a year, and I think I’ll have gotten there by then. But then there’s the other three-quarters that need a place they can afford, and that butts up against the fact that Anthony Portantino is listening to the single-family homeowners in La Cañada, and they would prefer not to have any apartment buildings down the street.
RS: He’s the person I mentioned who’s head of the state appropriations committee. But he’s a democrat, right? And probably something of a liberal democrat. I’m just–again, you’re a guy who works with this all the time. You’re trying to get people’s attention–what–basically, what do you–how do people respond? That it’s hopeless, we–I don’t care, or it’s somebody else’s problem? Or on the cutting-edge issues we can’t have rent control? That was one big thing. I mean, the rents have just skyrocketed. I saw a statistic that some very large number of people in California pay almost their whole income for rent.
TN: In L.A. County, 600,000 people spend 90 percent of their income on housing.
RS: So let’s think about that statistic. You know, 600,000 people in L.A. County spend 90 percent–so almost all of their working hours are spent trying to pay the rent.
TN: Yeah, and whatever’s left after that–
RS: So what’s left over for food, child care, clothing–unbelievable.
TN: That’s right.
RS: And yet we used to have rent control. When I went to graduate school in California, in Berkeley, in the Bay Area they had rent control. They had it here in Santa Monica and L.A. and so forth. It got wiped out.
TN: We still have rent control, but only about 10 of the cities in the state of California have some sort of–
RS: But also there was the Ellis Act and other things which basically gutted it, right?
TN: Yeah. I mean, so many important points. I just want to finish the thought on what’s wrong with us, and aren’t we all liberals. Ah–break it down into this, more granularly: It’s white people who are primarily the challenge on this housing question. White people support more multi-family housing, more apartments–whether they’re affordable or not, more apartments–to the tune of about 40 percent. And people who are not white support apartments to the tune of about 60 percent. 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. I’m not ready to give up on Sacramento. Jerry Brown didn’t think we could do anything about homelessness. He thought we could end climate change, which seems like one hell of a challenge. But when it comes to building housing and getting people off the streets indoors, which I think is much more in our control than the amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the last hundred years of industrialization, he threw his hands up. Gavin doesn’t feel that way. We also see the state legislature engaging–yeah, they had a bunch of failures. They didn’t do anything for decades before that. The era of local control, in deferring entirely to cities for housing policy, is officially over. And so the question is where do we go from there. I see the gears turning. We got our, we dug ourselves into one hell of a hole over the last eight decades, and we will not dig ourselves out overnight. But we cannot blanket-brush a failure in this moment because we didn’t do anything before, when in fact we are starting to do different things.
RS: [omission for station break] I’m talking to Tommy Newman, a young attorney who instead of making a lot of money developing false investments on Wall Street–
TN: Because I couldn’t sit still long enough to do that.
RS: –yeah, is actually trying to do God’s work here. And you are a product of Catholic education, so I can use that phrase. And helping people. And I want to cut to the chase. The reason I’m down on a kind of liberal approach to this–and I say it’s a cop-out; it’s precisely the figures you gave. We are in the deepest blue state in the country, if by blue we mean–and progressive democrats; we’re not old Southern racist democrats or what have you. These are people who pride themselves on being liberal and progressive.
TN: Those are the people that came to California, though, by the way. The old Southern racist democrats. They did come west, the Oakies.
RS: Yeah, OK. But we’re talking about who’s run this state for most of the last 40 years. And they talk a good game. And yet–and you put your finger on it–they fall back on, well, it’s a life choice. Or, well, it’s just one of those things that doesn’t get better. And really what we’re talking about is, what, a life choice of extreme degradation. So you see–we can get it when we see children on Skid Row, right? Or when we see women who are vulnerable on Skid Row. And then we support the downtown women’s shelter; I remember when I worked at the L.A. Times, we would bus dinners, and do that at least Thanksgiving time, and so forth. But the idea that we have come to accept as normal this degradation of the basic human activity, of shelter, family, cooking, living, safety–all of which are absent. And it’s horrible, you know, living in this cardboard condo or whatever, you know, and so forth. And then you are–what are you saying to yourself? I don’t care if that person is alive or dead, or whether they need health, or–and you walk on your way. Now, if you stop, yes, there are some good folks. I said again, the movie that I think United Way helped support–
TN: We did.
RS: —The Advocates, and their work. Yes, they’re doing it, but they’re far and few between. And so I’m taking it back now–the reason I’m doing this podcast, we have California now held as a beacon for progressive politics. Right? We went against the national thing; we didn’t find the free market, and you know, and the libertarian, and blah blah blah–no. We went with progressive, self-consciously liberal democrats run the state, and have–even though there have been some moderate republicans in between, and a few that weren’t quite so moderate–but the fact of the matter is, liberal democrats have had this as a laboratory. And then you come–
TN: Mm-hmm. Except for Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson. Who do have some of the responsibility for this.
RS: Yes, but–but don’t forget Pete Wilson started out as a liberal republican in San Diego. And Ronald Reagan, his ally in ending, really, the safety net, was in liberal groups. Or, but even let’s take the whole question of so-called welfare reform. That came from Bill Clinton. That was the Clinton administration. And you know, the attack on people who needed assistance came. So I do want to get, in this podcast, we’re going to run out of time, to the heart of not the indifference of cynical, racist, mean-spirited people. I want to know why ordinary people–and I put myself in that category–how I manage to work here at the University of Southern California, and if I go out and get a sandwich, I see people on the street and I don’t stop–very rarely will I stop to actually question whether that person is alive or dead. You know, it’s a mindset. It’s a mindset of indifference. And given the affluence–
TN: It’s a coping mechanism of indifference.
RS: Well, tell me about it. Because you live with it, and you address people, you talk to–
TN: And I live here too. And I drive around on the streets. And, ah, and it’s exhausting to see the level of poverty that we have, and the tens of thousands of people who are at the rock bottom of their lives. But it’s a coping mechanism. I would say that the switch has flipped to some extent. In all of the polling that we do and have done for years, ah, crime, traffic; traffic, crime–those were the number one priorities for voters in L.A. County, and now it is housing and homelessness. We just did a media study of the stories in L.A. versus the stories in the Bay Area, and the stories in L.A. connect the dots between the cost and availability of housing, and the homelessness crisis. And so there’s this light bulb that’s–it has not switched all the way on. It’s on a dimmer, and it’s just started to light up. I use my mother as the barometer for these things, born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, lives here in L.A. in a lovely single-family home. And we were having dinner recently, and she said, “So I hear you on this whole housing crisis thing. But I’m not sure I buy it. Tell me more.” And for decades, everybody said, our homelessness crisis is a mental illness crisis, and it’s a drug addiction crisis. And housing was not even a component of the conversation. The liberal policies go as far as housing policy, and then they stop. Because that’s where the rubber hits the road. On the dream, the California dream, property rights and value, those are the questions that are–Prop 13. Like, this goes all the way back to, like, the single-family home as the castle. You don’t, apparently, live in a single-family home, so this doesn’t apply to you quite as much. But that’s where the rubber hits the road. Those are the people that make the policy, those are the people that are trying to protect their economic interests, those are the people who don’t want to see the apartment building down at the end of the street. So how we can connect the dots between the suffering we see, and the solutions being creating more housing that people can afford, is what will determine whether or not we succeed or fail.
RS: Well, let me ask you finally, on a more depressing note–
RS: No, because it really goes to the question of what is society. We have multinational corporations that can make a lot of money in their international operations; they don’t have to be so accountable. But they happen to like to have a nation-state that has an army that can protect them and push for tariffs or no tariffs, depending on what the whim is–
TN: Yeah. Somewhat stable.
RS: Yeah. And so forth, so they don’t want to live on some island with their billion, it would be boring. So they want to live in the Bay Area–in fact, California is the best place to live if you’re one of these folks. And want to live here in L.A., where we now claim a Silicon Beach and everything else. And then what do you do with the population? Which you may not even need as a workforce. You know, because after all, you’ve got Chinese people assembling your iPhones, and–
TN: We have a service-based economy. We still need these folks–
RS: Yeah, but we can pay them–
TN: –and we’re paying them not very much.
RS: Yeah, and then we pride ourselves on having improved, maybe living, getting closer to a living wage. But I’m just saying, again, getting back to the Dickens [laughs] view of England at a certain time. Aside from being able to look the other way of this human suffering, what does it say about who we are? I mean, you live with it every day, you know. What is it–I mean, right now, you look at San Francisco, and even people who, you know, are schoolteachers and have regular jobs, can’t afford to live in San Francisco, or are being pushed out of Oakland. And yet you need them for service, you need them for other things. It’s–you know, and you–the reason I’m talking–after all, United Way is something that came out of alliance with the business community, right? You’re establishment, you’re part of that–
TN: Some days. [Laughs]
RS: Some days. Well, what do people say to you when you go to them? What do the people who are working in the big banking buildings, and real estate and so forth–I mean, for instance, we have this issue of gentrification. Maybe that’s a good way to kind of close, on this. But you know, the same L.A. downtown, or San Francisco downtown, that has this horrible homeless problem–horrible in its impact on the people, not just, not as a visual sight, but people who live there. On the other hand, it also hurts, ultimately, the quality of the society that the wealthier people are living in.
TN: Yeah, it lowers the commercial property values downtown. To have thousands of people living outside on the streets.
RS: So is that your basic appeal to the business community?
TN: I have different appeals for different communities and different interests. The business community has supported both of these taxes, which is–
RS: Well, let me just stop you for a second. Are you going to burn out? I mean, I meet guys like you–no, really–and I think, you know, how great we have some people who are doing this. Because I’m sure there are, maybe even your mother, but certainly people in your family, are saying: You went to law school for this? You know–[Laughter]. And, ah–I mean, I have a son who teaches in Oakland, you know; some days I say that to him. You know, ah, you can’t afford to live in there, but–you know, and you’re working so effectively and so hard. And it’s a real question of the burnout.
TN: I’d burn out if I were a corporate attorney writing memos and briefs. I wake up every day with a sense of energy and focus for this.
RS: How old are you now?
TN: I’m 35.
RS: Ah, that’s pretty good.
TN: And, ah–I know, and I have two kids, I have a three-year-old and a three-month-old. Those guys might burn me out first. Ah, no, I think that some folks are just motivated. I don’t go to church very often, so I appreciate the nod to Catholicism, but I’m not going to pretend to be actively practicing.
RS: Well, it came up in The Advocates, which impressed me. A couple of the people referred to their own church background. Which was, after all–come on, let’s give the Catholic Church a plug. Everybody–you know, and there are legitimate reasons to attack the Catholic Church–
TN: [Laughs] That’s a different show!
RS: But, no, but if there’s one organization that seems to care about poor people, you know, and finds dignity in the life of poor people and the struggle of them, it certainly has, at least with this current pope.
TN: Mm-hmm, that’s the truth.
RS: And so you know, OK, let’s be grateful for that. But really, I noticed in your LinkedIn page and so forth, you know, people say what kind of jobs, or–people are always looking for jobs. And here I’m teaching at USC, and we teach lots of things, right–do some app and you’ll make money, and do this and go work for that one. What’s the job pitch? Why should they go work with United Way, or with increasing the living wage, or working with one of the unions that are doing–or work with the ACLU. Let’s give the ACLU a plug; they’re there defending the rights of people. And yes, homeless people on Skid Row have rights, and no one should just be able to grab their material or their possessions; absolutely true. So what’s the job pitch?
TN: What we see in L.A., what we see in California, is not how it has to be. Go to another major city, somewhere else on this earth, and you will not see tens and tens of thousands of people living in tents. You’ll see the occasional person who’s at the, you know, lowest point of their life. But you’re not going to see tens and tens of thousands.
RS: In fact you have said, in New Orleans and in I think Portland, you’ve mentioned a few places where actually they’ve had some dramatic improvement in this situation.
TN: Yeah. And so what I know to be true is that this is a challenge that has been created by human beings, and thus can be solved by human beings. I’m not out here trying to end earthquakes. I’m trying to change our housing policy and secure more resources so that we can bring more people indoors.
RS: All right. So give me the crash course in the few minutes that remains. What’s the primer? What can we do right now? What should we do?
TN: It’s at every level of government, and it’s even just you talking to your neighbor, right? The analogy that I shared of my mom starting to accept that maybe we need to change the way we build housing. The fact that in 86 of the 88 cities in the city of–in the county of Los Angeles, you can’t build an apartment building on a main street, because they’re zoned for commercial only, is absurd. There’s a level of awareness and understanding that needs to happen, and the policy changes and the money will naturally follow. And so that’s a core responsibility and job that I have, is to help make the case that if we make different choices–and the choices don’t have to completely destabilize our lives, but they will result in some changes–then we will get different results, and we will be able to bring thousands of people indoors. And all you have to do is look at other cities on this earth–or specific populations that we decided to prioritize. Veteran homelessness is down 50 percent in the last seven years, because we decided to, at every level of government, invest on bringing veterans in. We can bring people indoors. Homelessness is not unsolvable. And so that’s the pitch. The pitch is come work on an incredibly challenging and dynamic issue with so many variables that every day your head is spinning trying to keep these puzzle pieces together, but know that we actually can do this. And if we can pull this off, if we can bring thousands of people indoors, it’s a harbinger of great things to come after that. Of building a more inclusive society and building a country that I think we’d all like to see: one that actually lifts everybody up.
RS: Right. And let’s be fair to the public. They did, thanks to people–you put out the word for Proposition H, and what was it, HH–
TN: Yeah, HHH and H, all the H’s.
RS: Yeah, and we had this big battle over increasing the minimum wage, which has been approved on both the county level and the city level in Los Angeles. So the public–and you know, fairly consistently in California they have supported bonds for education, when approached in the right way. But the public response–and maybe it’s a cop-out. But very often what you hear is, hey, we voted for it. You know, in this case Proposition H. I remember when that thing was out, I thought it was going to fail. I was blown away that it passed.
TN: It was a March ballot, with 15 percent turnout. Only the old, conservative white people voted, and yet we got ‘em.
RS: Yeah. To spend over a billion dollars on building housing for homeless people. Yet, you’re not building the housing.
TN: Well, this is where our–
RS: The money gets wrapped up–
TN: The housing is being built. There are 7,000 units, 1800 of which are under construction. This is where our thirst for instant gratification is a problem. Right? Having not done anything about this for decades, having asked the LAPD to just chase people from block to block, lo and behold, it didn’t work. Right? And so now we’ve decided, in the last 36 months, to finally invest in this issue. And so it will take us time to dig out of that hole. We’re already seeing those benefits of the work that we’re doing; you heard me talk about all the people who are finally in the system for the first time; we know their name and we know what they need, and we didn’t know that before because we weren’t talking to them. We also see that if we had not passed these ballot measures, the homelessness increase in the most recent count would have been 28 percent instead of 12 percent. And so I know Steve Lopez doesn’t really care about this argument, and I’m not making an excuse; I think it’s evidence of the fact that we know what works, and that it’s starting to have some bite, it’s starting to have some traction. And so the question is, how do we keep doing it and do more.
RS: You’re talking about the L.A. Times columnist?
TN: Yeah, Steve’s fired up these days. But I think he’s missing the point. I think he’s oversimplifying it by having it all be about Eric Garcetti entirely. His column on SB50, the one about building more housing and changing the way, having Sacramento take away local control, was–he said let’s, let’s go slow on this; let’s take our time. I don’t know if that’s because he was catering to the single-family homeowners who still get the Times delivered–I do get the Times delivered to my house every day. I think I’m the only person under the age of 40 who gets it. But the point is, we’re missing the point on what we really need to do to impact this issue. And it’s going to take time, because we weren’t doing it for a long time.
RS: So let me end on a point that you’ve made a number of times here about high-density housing and its access to transportation. And I have to admit that I’m driven by a fantasy of urban life that goes back to my first 22 years in the Bronx. You know, and going to, using the transportation system, even as a five-, six-year-old, I could go on my own. And I notice in the Bay Area, for example, maybe they need to do more of it, but there does seem to be some multiple housing units being built around BART stations. I don’t know if–
TN: Took an act of state law to make them build those.
RS: Yes. And it seems to work, though. Because, and particularly if you can keep the cost of the fare down, or have breaks for poorer people on fare. I mean, it’s just something so liberating, particularly in an urban environment, about not needing a car to maintain and have insurance for, and get to a job. And get to something else. Like hopefully right now–let’s be positive about Los Angeles–finally there’s an investment in public transportation.
RS: Yes. And so someone can, hopefully in the next few years, be in East L.A. but they want to see the Pacific Ocean–they can see it, you know. And fortunately, the California Constitution still preserves access to the ocean. And so then, this idea that you have–and I’ve seen on other occasions where you’ve brought it up, I think it’s really kind of basic–that we have to get rid of that suburban vision of the single-family home, and that multiple residency in higher density. And it’s absurd, even in downtown L.A. they were still building sort of these lower, faux, what are they, Italianite–
TN: [Laughs] Yeah, Geoffrey Palmer?
RS: –yeah, kind of places where, as, you know, you want. I mean, housing projects got a bad rep, you know. But there is something terrific about being, you know, able to accommodate larger numbers of people that are lower rent, right? And everybody forgets the heyday of New York City and Chicago and other cities, when you had these massive immigrant populations and everything, was affordable housing.
TN: Mm-hmm. And it wasn’t subsidized, it was naturally occurring. You know, the only thing I would say is, ah, we don’t need to turn L.A. into Manhattan here. We can just build a whole lot of three, four, five-story apartments on these big commercial quarters. You drive down Pico from downtown to the westside, and the number of one-story sort of odd commercial buildings that exist is absurd. And so I’m–and this is how I pitch it to my mom–I’m not talking about bulldozing large swaths of neighborhoods. There is a way to do this. In one of those most recent bills, they talked about allowing fourplexes where single-family homes are, and then that could add nine million units in L.A. County. That’s a lot of units. I grew up in a duplex over, you know, in the Fairfax district. It was lovely, it was charming, and that was twice the density, there were two families on the lot. So there is ways for us to do this. This is not rocket science, and we also don’t need to bulldoze all of the City of Los Angeles and build big towers.
RS: And are we finally getting a coalition that can make this happen? That’s what I’m–I noticed that, for instance, on the living wage, you have for once–I mean, you have more progressive unions now, that seem to want to represent the other. And you have some business interests. I mean, clearly, anybody who–maybe L.A. won’t be Manhattan, but we certainly are getting a big downtown. We have a lot of people coming downtown. Well, it’s got to be made safe and clean and functional. And that means taking care of the people who live there or are going to be there. Are you finding suddenly some change in business interests?
TN: I’m seeing it on the horizon. It’s not there yet. My light bulb on a dimmer–which we’ve just turned it on, and we’re still low, but we’re starting to build, the light’s getting a little brighter–we’re in the early stages of the light getting a little brighter. But it’s coming.
RS: OK, that’s a good point on which to end. And I want to thank Tommy Newman for–and go see this movie The Advocates.
TN: Streaming online. You can find it on your local streaming service.
RS: Great. And it’s really impressive, because we’re not talking about some phony idealists here, who you know, OK, say good things–these are people out there doing the nitty gritty work, and trying to make it happen. And so my hat’s off to you. And I do want to encourage people to realize that we are actually talking about a notion of what is civilization. Is it a gated community or a–San Francisco, in fact, if it goes the way it’s going now, will be a gated city. I mean, you know, if they had it to do over again, they probably wouldn’t even have BART come in anymore, except they need people to clean the buildings and so forth. Marin County up there in northern California kept BART out precisely because they wanted it to be a white-flight zone of privilege and so forth. I think that you can’t be a city of the future, which is what L.A. advertises as; you have to be welcoming to people who all look different ways, come from different backgrounds, have different skill sets, different employment opportunities. And the real challenge is really what you’re talking about–and you’re right to put it on the level of global warming and other big issues–is where is civilization headed? And you can’t call yourself a civilized community when you have–what are the statistics, how many people are homeless?
TN: Fifty-eight thousand.
RS: You know. And what are you going to do? And it’s increasing. They’re very proud that it only went up 12 percent, right?
TN: That’s true.
RS: That’s what our mayor here in Los Angeles, who was thinking of running for president, what was he going to brag? Oh no, homelessness only went up by 28 percent? OK. That’s a sad, but true point on which to end this. I want to thank Kat Yore and Mario Diaz, our engineers at KCRW. Joshua Scheer is the producer of Scheer Intelligence. And here at USC, Sebastian Grubaugh is our ever-talented engineer. And I want to thank USC and the Annenberg School for making the facilities available. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.