Can you address homelessness by building them their own city?


We’ve addressed the homelessness crisis on the west coast, particularly in California, more times than I can count. California has the highest number of homeless people in the country. (Washington, D.C. actually has the highest per capita homelessness rate.) Despite massive amounts of money being thrown at the problem, it’s continuing to grow rather than improve.

Enter Duane Nason of Folsom, California. He thinks he’s got a solution that’s based on some very, very far outside of the box ideas. Rather than constructing new shelters and providing more services to the homeless in the cities where they are now, he wants to pack them all up and move them to a brand new city that would be constructed exclusively for them. He calls his project Citizens Again, and he estimates that he’s going to need roughly three billion dollars to pull it off. (CBS Sacramento)

“We still have about 60,000 chronic homeless living on the streets, and so from the numbers form the last 10 years, it’s going to take 200 years to house all of them,” Nason said.

Instead of building 4,000 more shelters, Nason wants to build an entire city to house America’s homeless. The project won’t be cheap.

“I estimate it’s going to cost about $3 billion to build the city, and right now every year we spend about $6 billion on homelessness in general,” Nason said.

He says his idea will be quicker and cost less than current efforts.

If you browse through the Citizens Again website (linked above) you’ll see that Nason certainly has a lot of ideas. He’s talking about an actual city, built from the ground up in some rural area and ready to hold 160,000 people. There would be apartments, cafeterias, healthcare, and entertainment facilities. And everything would be free for the formerly homeless living there. He estimates that he’ll need around 300 acres of land.

Look, I don’t want to automatically throw cold water on anyone who’s trying to come up with innovative ideas to address the homelessness problem. It’s nothing short of a crisis at this point so somebody is going to have to dream up some big solutions. But with all of that said, this sounds like a disaster in the making, assuming it’s even possible.

First of all, he’s talking about a project that will cost three billion dollars. (On top of all the money already being spent to help the homeless.) Where is that going to come from? He started a crowdfunding effort according to the linked article, but as of the publication date he had raised 485 dollars.

But let’s just say that the money magically appears. (Hey, Michael Bloomberg could fund it all by himself.) The logistics of making a “city” like this run are daunting to say the least, even if you could get it built. Who is going to do all of the work that goes into running a city of that size? I’m sure there is some percentage of the homeless population who are both able and willing to do some of the jobs, particularly the lower-skill tasks of sanitation and general maintenance. But they would expect to be paid, requiring additional ongoing funding. If everything is free and the “city” collects no taxes, there is no revenue for municipal employees.

And there will be many other jobs to fill where you likely won’t find candidates among the homeless. The hospital and the clinics will all require doctors and nurses. All of the infrastructure will require skilled engineers and maintenance people. The mental health facilities alone will need an army of staff. Who will keep the lights on, both figuratively and literally? Where will all of these people live? In among the homeless or will they have to commute from elsewhere?

Further, this city wouldn’t just require a one-time payment of three billion dollars to get it going with the problem then being solved. It would produce no revenue, as I mentioned above, and the endless lists of goods and services required to keep a city running would have to be constantly injected into the system from the outside forever. I’m not even going to do a ballpark estimate of what all of the needs of 160,000 people (many of who will have extraordinary medical needs) would cost, but I’d wager it would be at least half a billion annually.

Also, not to put too fine of a point on this, but what Nason is envisioning simply isn’t how cities work. A metropolitan center requires a substantial base of productive citizens who hopefully produce enough wealth, products and services to carry along a small percentage of people who fall through the cracks. The general homeless population is filled to the brim with people experiencing both physical and mental health issues, high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction and shocking levels of crime. If you dump them all in one city with a comparative handful of the aforementioned professionals and productive citizens, you magnify the problems immeasurably.

Mr. Nason’s idea strikes me as a pleasant and well-intentioned dream, but really nothing more than that. If you managed to build a paradise for the homeless such as this it is far too easy to envision it turning into a living hell in very short order.

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