Measure H: The Better Alternative To Doing Nothing

Beneath a street light on Skid Row, an elderly man dozes off under a sleeping bag in Los Angeles, California. Next to him is a large tent made of blue tarp and found material. Apr. 2, 2017 (Staff Photographer Zin Chiang)

My neighborhood is homely. A quiet cul-de-sac marked by sidewalk flowers and children riding scooters down the paved road, it could easily be the backdrop of a 1950s movie, with pristine lawns and white picket fences. While The American Dream thrives in my own private bubble of the universe, a few blocks down, near an interstate 405 exit, so many tents are pitched underneath a freeway ramp that it could look like a camping ground if not for the blinking of traffic lights and the passing of rushing cars. The people who have made a home out of sidewalks and tarp become an irrelevant backdrop to the movie that is the rest of our lives. Living in a place like this for my entire life meant learning not to see these people. “Avoid eye contact,” my mom would tell me as a child. “Don’t give them your money. They’ll just use it on drugs.”

How many of us have grown up hearing phrases like these uttered by our family, our friends, and our classmates? How many of us have reiterated these phrases? How many of us have since learned to see homeless people as actual people - human beings worthy of dignity and decent living conditions just as much as my neighbors and me?

Los Angeles has one of the largest homeless populations in the entire nation. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), about 75% of the city’s estimated 46,874 homeless were unsheltered in 2016.

This disparity in the quality of living is impossible to ignore. Going to school in Santa Monica, California amplifies the gap. Gentrification runs deep in this neighborhood. By day, trendy cafes with 5-star Yelp reviews and aesthetically pleasing Instagram feeds run this town; by night, tents are popped up and sleeping bags are unfurled as the homeless rest their own weary bodies.

Despite my mother’s warnings, I still give them dollars that probably mean more to them than it will to me. For a girl who constantly jokes about her “broke college student” status, I still have immense economic privilege because I come from a middle-class family. It would be ignorant of me to pretend that this privilege - which keeps me in a fairly comfortable lifestyle - is something I earned. Many homeless individuals just weren’t born with the same safety net that I have.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) reports that a combination of low income and low availability of affordable housing greatly contributes to homelessness. In 2012, “there were only 5.8 million rental units affordable to the more than 10 million people” with “extremely low incomes” (ELI), as reported by NLCHP. Additionally, ELI households retain less than half of their income after paying for rent, which means less money for other necessities such as food, healthcare, transportation, and childcare.

In a 2015 status report done by The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the main causes of homelessness among unaccompanied individuals were, in order of impact: lack of affordable housing, poverty, mental health issues, substance abuse, unemployment, and family disputes. Of Los Angeles County’s homeless population, 30% are mentally ill, 23% struggle with substance abuse and 17% have a physical disability, according to the LAHSA. Furthermore, 18% of the population had a history of physical or sexual abuse.

These numbers are daunting. What’s a dollar - no matter how well-intentioned - compared to those statistics? I can hand out dollars at my local freeway exit to cardboard sign bearers every day for the rest of my life, and, in the end, I’ll still have my picturesque cul-de-sac to drive home to while the homelessness crisis can cozily stay out of sight and out of mind. I have been guilty of this. Privilege isn’t an easy coat to shrug off.

The real answer is that there is no easy, silver-bullet solution that can solve this city’s homelessness problem overnight. Individual “charity work,” although admirable in itself, is also not a solution. We need to start at the root of the crisis and provide people with the resources they need to get back on their feet and sustain themselves for the long-run.

An opportunity to take a step in the right direction arrived on March 7, 2017, when Los Angeles county voters made a decision in the municipal election. Measure H was on the ballot.

This measure levies a one-quarter cent ($0.025) sales tax for 10 years to prevent and combat homelessness. It is projected to bring in $355 million annually, which would then be used to fund mental health treatment, substance abuse rehabilitation, general health care, education, job training, rental subsidies, and many more services in the hope of benefiting the city’s homeless population.

The measure also sets up a citizens committee to oversee the use of revenue generated and legally requires the funds to be used for solely for homeless prevention, both of which ensure that the income is used responsibly.

In addition, Measure H complements Measure HHH, an earlier measure passed last November by LA voters. HHH aims to fund 10,000 units of housing for the homeless, while H will fund other necessary services that aid them.

On March 17, 2017, 10 days after the election, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder finished counting the remaining 55,000 ballots and declared that Measure H was passed by voters.

This measure is monumental for the city. It tackles the homelessness crisis at its roots in a systematic manner and aims to make necessary resources, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, accessible for those in need. These people now have a greater opportunity to obtain the help they need in order to rebuild their lives. Homelessness is a multifaceted problem and therefore requires a multifaceted solution. Who’s to say if Measure H will substantially solve this issue 10 years from now? But, who’s also to say that we can’t try?