Lopez: Shortsightedness and a Continued NIMBY Culture

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

A view of the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment looking towards Katella Avenue, next to Angel Stadium.

The “NIMBY” stance on homelessness in Orange County has been often cited as a major barrier in solving the issue.

Most recently, however, it was staunchly defended by one of its County Supervisors, Todd Spitzer.

After addressing remarks from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, which cautioned Orange County that the road they are currently on is only shortly behind where L.A. currently stands, Spitzer trumpeted the most recent efforts made by Orange County which include the clearing of encampments along the Santa Ana Riverbed, providing temporary housing, and connecting people with needed services. While true, he failed to mention that the county sat on its hands until U.S. District Judge David O. Carter ordered the Riverbed clearing in an attempt to force the county’s hands and get them to finally initiate action on the issue. The fact that Santa Ana is set to sue the entire county for failing to do its share in combatting the issue surely only served to motivate them further.

Spitzer then remarked on how Orange County contrast Los Angeles in that, “We don’t accept homelessness as a way of life, and we don’t enable the homeless population.” To hammer this point home he cited the county’s anti-overnight camping ordinance, claiming, “. . . we can use it to arrest lawbreakers.” This completely ignores the damage that policies and rhetoric which criminalize such a vulnerable population can cause. In fact, it only worsens the problem, as countless studies have shown that revolving the homeless population through a cycle of citations and jailing not only forces them further into crippling poverty, but inevitably costs tax payers significantly more than providing permanent supportive housing would. Enabling the homeless population is not lifting short sighted ordinances that stigmatize an entire population, rather it is sitting for years without action until it literally takes the power of a federal judge to move you.

To further his point about how effective anti-camping ordinances are Spitzer, in reference to Los Angeles, remarked that, “the city’s essentially hands-off police presence beckons homeless people from across the nation like a neon sign.” Clearly he has either ignored or not looked at the most recent data from the Los Angeles homeless count, which found that 71% (over 29,000 people) of the unsheltered homeless population in L.A. County had lived in Los Angeles prior to becoming homeless. In fact, 57% (over 21,000 people) of unsheltered persons reported being residents of the County for at least 20 years.

Spitzer closed by hitting on some of the most cited rhetoric in the debate over Orange County’s homeless population. First, he noted that in his own experience during the riverbed clean up, “Many people told me they didn’t want the help; they liked living at the riverbed.” This is a rather subjective assessment, and clearly shows Spitzer yet again has chosen to ignore information that is readily available to him. In a memorandum directly to the Board of Supervisors from Orange County Executive Officer Frank Kim, it was reported that 697 people were placed into the temporary motel housing offered by the county. Only 111 (16%) people outright denied all services. Spitzer continued by playing on common fears of increased criminal activity that is often attached to stigma of homelessness. Again he demonstrates his short sightedness on the issue, as studies show that crime rates steeply decline when people who are homeless are placed into permanent supportive housing. If Spitzer truly cared about long term solutions, he would be touting this instead of utilizing fear to win over his constituents.

It is important to note that we agree on one thing Spitzer mentioned in his closing line. In a final rally cry for Orange County he strongly declared that, “We will not accept a permanent skid row.”

I whole heartedly agree, this should be avoided at all costs. However, avoiding the creation of another skid row and rejecting NIMBY policies are not mutually exclusive to one another. That is, having one doesn’t mean we can’t also have the other. Instead the entire county needs to take ownership and responsibility for its most vulnerable residents, and move on collaborative actions that will pull the issue out from under the rug, and finally combat it once and for all.

Michael Lopez is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California where he obtained his degree as an MSW. He resides in Diamond Bar. Throughout his academic career he has developed extensive knowledge of many societal concerns including homelessness, mental health, education, and economic disparity. 

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