2020 candidates are 'dumbfounded’ on how to end homelessness: LA Mission CEO

Impoverished children and their families line up to receive free back-to-school supplies from the Fred Jordan Mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy NicholsonREUTERS

Homelessness is one of the most pervasive and urgent issues for Californians. It’s also one that has become deeply politicized, and the CEO of one of the nation’s largest providers of services to the homeless is skeptical that any of the 2020 presidential candidates can address it in a meaningful way.

“I think the politicians are as dumbfounded as the community in many ways about how to address the issue. We tell them that the issue of homelessness is not a single issue. It's a multitude of issues that people experience beginning many times with mental health challenges and addictions,” said Herb Smith, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Mission, which provides emergency services, housing, legal counseling, and other services to the homeless.

“But for many, it's just purely economics. The fact that they cannot afford to live. They can't afford the rent, and even if they try and work, one of the most frustrating pieces is right now it takes three people working $15 minimum wage to afford a normal rent burden of a two-bedroom unit here in LA,” he added, in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

More than 150,000 people are homeless in California, a 16% increase from last year. Nowhere is the crisis more tragic or visceral than on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. Having been at the helm of the non-profit for 14 years, Smith has witnessed many politicians and their promises.

The Democratic candidates’ plans

Democratic presidential hopefuls have proposed varying levels of commitment to the issue, with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders presenting the most ambitious plan. 

He would invest $32 billion over five years to combat homelessness, which would include outreach services for the chronically homeless. He would commit an additional $15 billion to enact a 21st Century Homestead Act to “purchase and revitalize abandoned properties to create community and individual wealth and assets for historically disadvantaged communities.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden supports Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ Ending Homelessness Act, which has a central commitment of $5 billion for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants that fund nonprofits and communities. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to invest $6 billion to fund homelessness support services.Sen. Elizabeth Warren has detailed various investments into public housing like a $10 billion grant program that communities can use to build infrastructure. She doesn't lay out specific policies relating to services for the homeless.

NORFOLK, VIRGINIA - MARCH 01:  Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Booker T. Washington High School March 1, 2020 in Norfolk, Virginia. After his major win in South Carolina, Biden continues to campaign for the upcoming Super Tuesday Democratic presidential primaries.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Getty Images

Inaction at the federal level

Governor Gavin Newsom said California residents have “lost patience” with the federal government’s inaction during his recent State of the State speech, pointing out complete lack of support from Housing and Urban Development. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the swelling crisis.

Regarding Trump’s attacks, Smith said there’s a faint silver lining — they have drawn more attention to an emergency situation.

“I think his rhetoric has helped [with awareness], but I haven't seen much in a way of dollars,” he said. Revenue at the LA Mission has plateaued over the last decade, but costs have only gone up with an increase in the number of people seeking their services and an uptick in addiction and mental health challenges.

“I think those that we serve are disenfranchised with community to start with. They are disenfranchised with politics. They're promised housing, we don't build it. They're promised support, they don't see it. We work very hard to develop a relationship with the individuals who come to us... There are answers out there we just need to all continue to put our heads together and work towards a solution,” he said.

Regardless of socioeconomic class or race, homelessness is something that all Californians are confronted with — particularly in major metro areas. 

“In California, homelessness and housing are the top two issues bar none. In every single poll, in every single conversation I have with people and we talk about these issues, these are the things that come up,” said Douglas Herman, a political strategist who was a chief mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

“They’re concerns for people across the board, across the state, up and down the geography of the state, the income levels of the state, it doesn't matter where you live. These are issues that are impacting you and that are top of mind and you see problems with on a daily basis.”

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Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm. Read more:

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