By Hailie Goldsmith
Hailie Goldsmith is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania
With an estimated count of 130,000 homeless individuals, the extent of the homeless population is severe and ever-growing in California . After a September visit to San Francisco and Los Angeles, the major sites of California’s homeless population, President Trump solely focused on the potential environmental implications of the homelessness crisis. He criticized the used syringes entering the Pacific Ocean as well as open defecation and its potential to violate federal water-quality standards by spreading dangerous pathogens and contaminants .
When White House officials—including several representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency—toured Skid Row in Los Angeles, they fretted over the human waste entering the storm drains rather than zooming out and evaluating the situation as an imminent crisis of homelessness that demands urgent attention from policy-makers specializing in housing-related issues . In California, 90,000 homeless individuals out of 130,000 total are unsheltered; the extent of unsheltered homelessness inherently means that open defecation occurs as a result . Trump’s administration, including his EPA head—Andrew Wheeler—has taken note of the visible impact of homelessness in Los Angeles and San Francisco and has already taken preliminary action.
On September 26, 2019, Andrew Wheeler sent a notice to California Governor Gavin Newsom to inform Newsom of the extent of the homelessness crisis and its supposed violations of federal EPA regulations and codes, including the federal Clean Water Act of 1973 and the Safe Drinking Water Act . The Environmental Protection Agency cited water quality violations among 202 different water systems throughout California . Wheeler attributes these violations to “piles of human feces” deposited by homeless people . In his notice, Wheeler intends to justify a greater degree of EPA oversight in California’s water treatment systems, and he concludes his notice by prompting Newsom to provide a timely response and action plan.
However, Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Water Policy Center of the Public Policy Institute of California, asserts his informed claim that the EPA’s accusations against California’s water treatment systems do not hold up under closer scrutiny, and he assures news reporters that major California cities collect and treat all runoff, which counters the primary argument of Wheeler and his agency . Furthermore, San Francisco has made noticeable efforts to mitigate public health risks; the city distributed more mobile toilets and established a “feces cleanup crew” to prevent harmful contaminants from mingling with water runoff, and the city also created a program for collecting and properly disposing of hypodermic needles every month . The EPA’s attempt to label the issue as one that stems from the homelessness crisis is not factually correct and detracts from the significance of the true problem at hand pertaining to homelessness: the crisis demands affordable housing.
Though Trump does indeed wish to eradicate any and all visible evidence of homelessness and its consequences, he does not express any concerns towards addressing the root causes of the crisis. His administration recently decided to abstain from providing much-needed financial support for affordable housing programs in California . Revealing his true political motives, Trump voiced his fears that visible homeless problems will deter international individuals from living in U.S. cities with concentrated populations of homeless people . It does not make sense to try to fix a consequence of an issue—open defecation and used needles on the streets—when the issue itself and the issue’s causes should instead be the true targets of California’s policy efforts. Critics of the current presidential administration see Trump’s utilization of the EPA’s powers and abilities as “weaponizing government to attack his political opponents” without truly attempting to solve homelessness .
As a response to Wheeler’s EPA notice on September 26th, Governor Newsom approved Assembly Bill No. 1197, originally proposed by the California State Legislature . Unlike Trump’s administration, the legislation does not focus on a potential consequence of homelessness—contaminated water—and instead acknowledges the lack of affordable housing, a major cause of the homelessness crisis in California. This particular Assembly Bill stipulates that the City of Los Angeles can construct supportive housing and emergency shelters without having to face restrictions or limitations from the California Environmental Quality Act, which normally requires construction projects to proceed only after an environmental impact report has been completed and approved. This legal exemption will stand until the beginning of 2025, and California legislators hope that the legislation will enable Los Angeles to assist its growing homeless population by quickly providing “high-quality permanent supportive housing that adopt the core component of the Housing First Model and develop crisis and bridge housing that are low barrier” .
Of the many affordable housing programs, Housing First initiatives have proven to be effective, successful, long-term, and financially sustainable, as opposed to many other temporary housing or treatment-first options. Unlike treatment-first models, Housing First models guarantee housing as a basic human right that a mentally ill homeless person deserves without first having to demonstrate complete sobriety or convey the degree of desperation for housing . Though the cost of Housing First seems daunting, it offsets the costs of shelters and transitional housing programs that will be rendered obsolete and unnecessary once Housing First models run their course and permanently house substantial amounts of homeless individuals .
Rather than focus California’s limited financial resources on meeting federal clean water standards, California’s elected officials should instead work to provide affordable and stable housing, especially according to the Housing First model, and address the real systemic proponents of the homelessness crisis. This will ultimately clear up the streets, ensure compliance with federal water-quality standards, and appease the Trump administration’s focus on the aesthetics of streets and the removal of any visible evidence of homelessness.
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