California Needs an Alternative to “Housing First”

To reclaim neighborhoods from rampant homelessness, giant high-tech shelter tents are a first step

The Legal Landscape

State and local governments in the western United States (the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction[1]) are bound by the appellate court’s 2018 homelessness decision in Martin v City of Boise,

[A]s long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.

With a few exceptions, the Martin decision requires a local government in a western state to provide indoor shelter beds for all people experiencing homelessness in its jurisdiction before the city or county can legally remove anyone sleeping or residing outdoors on public property. Such removals without sufficient sleeping spaces violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

Some jurisdictions, including Boise, reacted to the Martin decision by spending more tax dollars on shelters, allowing the city or county to enforce its anti-camping and anti-disorderly-conduct ordinances.[2] Other jurisdictions, especially in California, have used Martin as an excuse to let communities become overrun by homelessness, effectively turning neighborhoods into “shelters of first resort.” A full 30 percent of the nation’s total homeless population and 50 percent of all unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in the country live in California.

The Dominant Ideology of “Housing First” Crowds Out Shelter Space and Treatment Solutions

California governments at all levels have allowed neighborhoods to be overwhelmed with people experiencing homelessness because funding has been skewed over time toward greater relative investments of taxpayer dollars into so-called “permanent housing,” rather than badly needed shelter space. These governments have enshrined into law and program rules the ideology of “Housing First,” which contends that the best way to defeat homelessness is to construct or acquire a permanent home for every person experiencing homelessness, often at taxpayer expense.

The goals of Housing First are to quickly identify people who are experiencing homelessness, rapidly provide them with an affordablepermanent home, and consistently offer effective support services for substance abuse, mental health, job training, and essential life skills/responsibilities (although participation in such programs is not required as a condition of residency). Advocates claim that under Housing First, homelessness will be “rare, brief, and one time.” Clearly, this has not been California’s experience, where homelessness is widespread, chronic, and growing, all because the built-in promises/assumptions (italicized above) cannot be met.

Housing First sounds fantastic until one realizes the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in California and the state’s housing realities:

  1. More than 171,500 people experience homelessness in California on any given night, more than any other state, and the total keeps growing.
  2. The true number of people experiencing homelessness throughout a year is estimated to be two to four times the nightly figure, of which 67 percent are unsheltered in California.
  3. For every person who exits homelessness by becoming housed, up to four more people become newly homeless.
  4. California has a severe housing shortage.
  5. California is the second most expensive state to build housing, behind only Hawaii, and it typically takes about five years or longer from concept to move-in.
  6. Putting a permanent roof over the head of a previously unhoused person who has a substance abuse disorder or mental illness does not resolve their root causes of homelessness and may make matters worse.

Those factors combine to make Housing First in California a misguided, budget-busting, Sisyphean pipe dream of the state’s political class, which has produced concentrated urban areas of human misery such as The Jungle (San Jose), Skid Row (Los Angeles), the Tenderloin (San Francisco), and Wood Street (Oakland).

Being unhoused in California means living in a hellscape of murders, sexual assaults, thefts, fights, drug violence, drug use and overdoses, suicides, dangerous unsanitary conditions, chronic and acute diseases that can lead to amputations and deaths, and fires. In San Francisco alone, the number of reported fires in homeless encampments increased by 115 percent, from 457 in 2019 to 981 in 2022. The mortality rate for chronically homeless individuals is four to nine times higher than that of the general population.

City residents who want to raise their children in safe neighborhoods and to go to work and school each day without navigating filth, misery, disease, and dysfunction, see their neighborhoods sacrificed to homelessness by the political elites. Housing First has failed the housed and unhoused alike in California and it will never succeed.

The largest cities and counties in California—Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose—have between 5,000 and 75,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. The total cost of providing permanent housing for each unhoused person under Housing First would be astronomical.[3]

One “affordable” housing unit costs an average of $750,000 to build in San Francisco and as much as $1.2 million on the high end. It’s cheaper to buy units, but not by much. For example, San Francisco’s city government recently bought two buildings for permanent supportive housing containing 252 units for $162.3 million, or $644,000 per unit. In Los Angeles County, the median cost to build one unit of affordable housing is $600,000, and one project is on track to cost $837,000 per unit to house formerly homeless people. To put that cost into perspective, the median cost to buy a market-rate single-family home in Los Angeles is $800,000. The median price to build one affordable housing unit in Sacramento is $670,000, and so on.

Even if it was possible to build rapidly—say, 100,000 units—of housing at a reasonable cost for people experiencing homelessness, the following year, there would be a line of 200,000 people wanting free or heavily subsidized permanent housing. Housing First acts as a magnet, drawing more people into an area wave after wave.

As a means of satisfying the requirements of Martin (the number of beds must equal the number of homeless people), or of simply making a dent in the level of street homelessness, Housing First is a fool’s errand in California. The need is too great, and the response is too slow. The largest cities and counties cannot add permanent housing units at a fast enough rate, given the staggering growth of the homeless population, which then turns neighborhoods into collection points of dangerous dysfunction. The unrelenting attempt to make Housing First “work,” however, diverts billions of dollars away from adding much-needed shelter housing linked to immediate service offerings. The State of California spent a staggering $17.5 billion on Housing-First-compliant programs from 2018 through 2022, yet the state’s homelessness crisis worsened.[4] 

In March 2023, San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman summed up the city’s problem, and it also applies statewide: “I don’t think we can provide a permanent home in San Francisco for every person who engages in our homelessness response system, and I don’t think that should be our goal. It’s almost like we’re almost ideologically committed to this PSH [permanent supportive housing] outcome and are almost unwilling to contemplate a more shelter- or transitional housing-based approach.” At last, one official was willing to speak the truth.

It is time to get real about the true scale of California’s growing humanitarian problem and admit that Housing First has been an expensive and dismal failure. A different strategy is needed to fulfill the requirements of Martin and to bring the unhoused population off the streets and closer to life-changing and life-saving treatment.

Step One: Rapidly Restore Civil Society with High-Tech Shelter Tents

A safer and more dignified approach than allowing California’s neighborhoods to become default shelters would be establishing city- or county-designated sites that deploy giant high-tech shelter tents with accompanying security and sanitation services. This innovative approach has many advantages over Housing First: less expensive than permanent housing for everyone, faster to build, rapidly scalable to fit the need, safer and more humane than street life, and brings potential clients closer to service providers daily.

Each giant tent would house hundreds of people. Scaled to need, they would satisfy the “indoor bed” requirement of Martin, thus fulfilling the Ninth Circuit’s demands. Giant tents have long been used by the U.S. military (see here and here), commercial events (see a photo of a 120,000-square-foot modern tent used for the annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show), and recently by New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) to house newly arriving migrants. The Randalls Island tent complex in New York City was initially 84,400 square feet, accommodating up to 1,000 people and costing $325,000 to set up. As the need increased, the complex was expanded to five tents of 600 people each for a total accommodation of 3,000 people. (That alone would fulfill nearly 70 percent of San Francisco’s unmet shelter need under Martin.) Mayor Adams wisely understood the need to create entry-level shelters rapidly, which California needs to copy.

These high-tech tents are sturdy (they can withstand winds of 90 miles per hour) with an internal frame and can be outfitted with flooring, heat, air conditioning, dividers for privacy, and accompanying portable toilets, wash stations, showers, lockers for personal possessions, and meal and laundry areas (Mahaffey/Sunbelt, for example, sells a combined package that includes those features for up to 1,000 people). The intake process would sort people among tents or sites based on gender, needed living arrangements, and behavioral or physical health needs. Around-the-clock security, inside and outside the tents, would be provided.

Once the Martin requirement is met, the unhoused who choose to stay in a community would have to use, and could not refuse, the available housing at a designated tent site. Neighborhood residents could then begin to reclaim and restore their communities. Zero tolerance for street living could be applied since more humane and dignified alternatives now exist. Of course, the option would always remain for people experiencing homelessness to leave the area rather than use a site, and efforts should be made to reunite the unhoused with family and friends elsewhere.

Tents are a creative and realistic solution because, as New York City has demonstrated, they can be quickly scaled to the need—perhaps initially thousands of people in some locations—which would likely decrease over time as it became known that California neighborhoods are no longer available for whatever lifestyle people want to live for as long as they want to live it.

Shelter tent areas would concentrate people experiencing homelessness into a few designated locations in a city or county. The status quo, however, scatters the anti-social effects of homelessness throughout a city. It is not obvious that the negative spillover effects would be greater with a few giant tent sites than with the current approach since security and sanitation services would be provided, and the transaction costs of providing proper security and connecting clients with service providers would decrease. Tent sites would put people experiencing homelessness in daily contact with providers ready to help them whenever people experiencing homelessness are willing to accept treatment and begin recovery.

The downside of shelter tent sites for politicians is that they would force officials to include in government budgets more of the social costs of homelessness that have been off-loaded onto neighborhood residents: tents blocking sidewalks, streets, alleyways, and driveways; drug paraphernalia including hypodermic needles in parks and on sidewalks; human waste; violence and threats of violence; open-air drug dealing and drug use; overdoses and overdose deaths; littering; and trespassing. Children’s soccer games in Leland Stanford Park in Sacramento were discontinued because of needles and crack pipes on the field. A recent cleanup collected 750 used needles. Public spaces have public purposes that do not involve drug injection, and those spaces should be protected through enforcement.

It is past time to say, “Enough is enough,” and for state and local officials to account for the true social cost of homelessness, not hide the full cost off-budget by pushing it onto others. Shelter tent sites would bring much-needed transparency.

Step Two: Shelter Tents are an Immediate Stopgap, but Campus-Style Housing Is a Desirable Long-Term Goal

Shelter tent sites would be a humane first step in response to the Martin decision and to a growing humanitarian crisis throughout the West from Seattle to Portland, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and across California. High-tech shelter tents are a needed first step, but they are not the final step.

The second step is to build homelessness campuses similar to the 1,700-resident campus called Haven for Hope in San Antonio, which offers a low-barrier shelter called The Courtyard and a Transformational Campus for those who are ready to enter treatment and job training and progress up the housing ladder as they address the root causes of their homelessness. According to Haven for Hope’s website, it partners with 76 service providers, 41 of which are on campus. (For more on Haven for Hope, its operations, services, and successes, see my commentary “How San Francisco Can Solve Its Homelessness Problem: A Campus-Based Model in San Antonio Suggests a Path Forward,” The American Conservative, October 3, 2022; and my coauthored report Beyond Homeless: Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes, Transformational Solutions (Independent Institute, 2021).)

Frankly, given the years that it takes to build anything in California, especially a campus-style facility for the homeless population, high-tech shelter tents would be needed for many years and must be set up if neighborhood residents are to begin to reclaim and restore their communities immediately. Shelter tents are a complement to campus-style housing, but they can do in months what it would take years or decades to do using campuses or permanent housing in the style of Housing First, specifically, provide entry-level housing at scale.

One way to envision the relationship between shelter tents and campus housing is to imagine a housing ladder, also called a housing staircase. At the bottom of the ladder would be giant shelter tents; a rapid dignified response to an escalating situation, relatively inexpensive to provide, and quickly scalable. The tents would provide entry-level or stopgap housing while campuses are built. As people enter treatment and progress through a program, they would qualify for “recovery housing,” “earned housing,” or “transformational housing,” which is tied to their progress: perhaps first tiny homes on campus, then small apartments on campus, larger apartments off campus, eventually, housing off campus that the formerly homeless individual pays for as they complete treatment and job training and become employed and self-sufficient.

Step Three: Self-Sufficiency and True Permanent Housing

The third and final step is self-sufficiency: the ultimate objective and the only path to permanent housing that does not involve making people, effectively, wards of the state. Most homelessness violates the natural life cycle: when people become adults, they are supposed to be self-sufficient and capable of caring for themselves. To the extent that adults experiencing homelessness require care, giant shelter tents would provide a cheaper, safer, and more dignified alternative to the streets until those people are ready to enter treatment, confront the root causes of their homelessness, and get back on their feet with self-earned permanent housing.

Although clearly second-best alternatives to self-sufficiency, shelter tents and campus facilities are safer alternatives to the streets. They would allow neighborhood residents to reclaim and restore their communities now rather than waiting years or decades for sufficient campuses or Housing First units to be built. Residents and businesses in the Tenderloin and Skid Row have waited long enough. The people deserve safe, clean neighborhoods today.

Sacrificing neighborhoods to the anti-social behaviors of street homelessness is unfair and destroys civil society. Given the constraints of Martin v City of Boise, dignified shelter tents would begin recovery immediately for communities and people experiencing homelessness in California.


[1] States in the federal jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals include Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, plus the territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

[2] Martin v City of Boise stated, “Naturally, our holding does not cover individuals who do have access to adequate temporary shelter, whether because they have the means to pay for it or because it is realistically available to them for free, but who choose not to use it” (note 8). According to data from San Francisco’s Healthy Streets Operations Center, part of the city’s Department of Emergency Management, about 7 percent (153/2,344) of people living on the streets have shelter or housing elsewhere, based on HSOC engagements.

[3] Vanessa Brown Calder and Jordan Gygi of the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute described one estimate, “last year [2022], the Corporation for Supportive Housing estimated that California needs to build 112,527 units at a total cost of $67.9 billion, or $603,410 per unit, to end homelessness. Subsidizing operating costs and rents for these units costs an additional $22 billion over 12 years.” Keep in mind that this estimate only houses the first wave of homeless, not the waves that would surely follow.

[4] The graphics here show that total homelessness and chronic homelessness spiked in California after Housing First was adopted by the state government in 2016, and spending on shelter beds and treatment declined relative to spending on permanent housing. Housing First was implemented in San Francisco more than a decade before state adoption. Elsewhere, economist David S. Lucas found that increased federal funding of homelessness programs after Housing First was adopted fully by the federal government in 2009 increased total homelessness, chronic homelessness, and sheltered homelessness, and did nothing to reduce unsheltered homelessness.

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book California Dreaming.
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