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In Theory: Is a city responsible for the homeless?

Alice Callaghan

Portrait of Father Alice Callaghan, at Las Familias Del Pueblo, in Los Angeles on July 8. Dubbed “Father Alice” because she is both an Episcopal priest and a former nun, Callaghan is best known in City Hall circles for her politically savvy lobbying on behalf of the poorest of the poor.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In a July 15 Q&A article with Patt Morrison for the Los Angeles Times, Alice Callaghan, a longtime advocate for the homeless, was critical of the city of Los Angeles’ policies and efforts to address homelessness on Skid Row.

When asked about the council’s ordinance limiting the time the homeless had to remove their possessions or risk getting them seized, Callaghan said, “The city’s overriding concern is not solving the homeless problem but the visibility of homeless.”

Callaghan said the reason the homeless seem more visible these days is partly due to gentrification, and what she believes is the city’s lack of response to protect affordable housing for homeless people.

During the 1960s, there were more than 10,000 affordable housing units called SROs [single-room occupancy hotels] on Skid Row, according to Callaghan. By the 1980s, there were about 6,700 and now, there are around 3,600 units.


When developers began converting units into upscale housing, it became too expensive for nonprofits, according to Callaghan.

“To [Mayor Eric Garcetti] the misery of the poor is not going to hold captive the gentrifying desires of the rich downtown,” she said.

Q. How much responsibility should be placed on cities to secure truly affordable housing to accommodate the homeless? How does a city address this ethical responsibility when it conflicts with the rights and desires of landowners and residents?



I’ll admit it: I carry plastic cups of change in the car and hand them to the people on street corners with signs asking for help. I know, I know, it’s better to give to organizations that can offer more permanent solutions. But there are so many ways in which I fail to be a good follower of Jesus, and this is one small thing I can do: He said to “give to whoever begs from you” (Matthew 5:42) and I do.

I know it’s not a good solution. But in that moment of exchange, we look in each other’s eyes, and speak to each other, and share a moment of common humanity; and it feels like I’m being at least a little bit true to my baptismal vow to ‘respect the dignity of every human being.’

I couldn’t have that moment, I couldn’t follow Jesus in even that one small way, if the homeless people were “disappeared” from my view. If they weren’t right there in front of me, I could pretend, with everyone else, that our society has made adequate progress in helping the people who need help.

We have not.

I’ve always thought that developers should be required to build a certain percentage of low-income housing, and another percentage of middle-income housing, for all the high-rent stuff they build — maybe 25% low income, 15% middle income, and 60% higher income. It’s the only way I can think of to ensure that a city can provide good homes to its people — all its people.

A city isn’t made beautiful by scuttling all the “undesirables” off stage; a city is beautiful when even the people off the stage are allowed to live with an adequate measure of human dignity, health and safety.

Los Angeles could be, and should be, a city made beautiful by caring for all its people.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge



Alice Callahan has my respect and gratitude for her nearly 35 years of work for L.A.'s homeless. She founded Las Familias del Pueblo in 1990, when she was a Roman Catholic nun. This organization continues to serve immigrant communities, especially children, our future.

Callahan’s demands of the city of L.A. are righteous and reasonable, and Mayor Garcetti answered that now we “begin to end homelessness,” and asked for a $2 million budget increase.

But the moral responsibility to house everyone rests with us all. Systemic problems — that we tolerate at the very least — lead to homelessness: not enough housing that is truly affordable; low wages and high unemployment even as the economy (and profits) grow; and criminalizing mental illness and addiction rather than treating them medically. These permeate urban, rural and suburban communities alike.

Our massive number of homeless people requires national-level solutions funded at the federal level, and the money is there.

Here’s the first money-pit crying out to be tapped — our nuclear weapons arsenal, which costs taxpayers $2.2 million per hour (, day in, day out, for bombs that any rational person knows we must never use.

Another, our taxes supporting more than 700 foreign military bases, which according to George W. Bush’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are hardly peaceniks, “give us no strategic advantage” and “provoke antipathy toward the U.S.”

Spare me talk of the “rights and desires” of landlords and residents. What about the “desire” for a home by those without one? Adequate affordable housing, including SROs, do not infringe on property rights. I’m not sure there is a constitutional right to a neighborhood without people living on its streets, but if we don’t want our views ruined, let’s get real about ending homelessness.


Roberta Medford


All of us have a responsibility to care for the homeless, “provide for the general welfare” is the basis for the entire Constitution. To limit the responsibility for the current homeless situation only on Mayor Garcetti and his desire to honor the city of Los Angeles and the other residents of Los Angeles is short sighted. While I don’t dispute the housing numbers of Alice Callaghan’s report, we must look to the causes of the growing numbers of homeless people in the greater Los Angeles area. The early 1960s and the mid 2010s comparative populations are much different. The effects of the drug culture, the Vietnam War, Iraq and Afghanistan, and their attendant cases of PTSD, have brought us new homeless victims.

Add to that the economic disaster and the housing market collapse of 2008 and we have a group of people vastly different than the dust bowlers of the 1930s who fled Oklahoma for California.

Where in the past, people had opened their homes to needy relatives and friends, this new homeless group brought concerns for health and safety for the host families. If there is a place to lay blame, then let it be on Proposition 13 in 1978, and its cut of social services. In the past social workers in California were able to provide services for those in need with individual and group counseling sessions. Documented evidence shows this is extremely effective with many of the victims of PTSD as well as addiction. We need to petition Gov. Brown, the California State Legislature and our federal representatives to increase the social services areas of their respective budgets to the levels that will deal effectively with the problems of the homeless and their families. Then we will have set in motion a partial solution, therefore, to the current homeless crisis, and God willing help them to return to us with dignity and honor. This will honor them, honor us and honor God, Mayor Garcetti and the most honorable Alice Callaghan for her efforts.

Rabbi Mark Sobel
Temple Beth Emet


Planning the logistics and minutia of balancing provisions for the homeless and the desires of landowners and residents in a quickly gentrifying city is a complicated and multifaceted problem. It should be handled by experts and no decision should be made hastily or entirely from a perspective of profit. It is something that must be carefully, thoughtfully and compassionately considered.

A huge part of the problem is how our American culture perceives the homeless. Of course there are concerned souls that make every attempt to treat all in an egalitarian, respectful and overall humanist manner. However, the majority of us consider the homeless “other than,” a nuisance and criminal.

The fact of the matter is most homeless people are just trying to live with the cards life has dealt. They are as much human, deserving and ethical as everyone else. Were we in their situation, not only would we likely seek the same solutions, we would expect compassion and understanding. Yet, those are things we often do not give because they interfere with our personal and short-term desires.

To address this problem, we need to reeducate ourselves and change the way we educate future generations. We must inculcate society with a sense of loving kindness and empathy that is sorely lacking. Only when we truly put ourselves in other shoes, will a good and long-term solution percolate. We should not be thinking of it as “dealing with the homeless issue” but “taking care of our less fortunate neighbors and fellow humans with loving kindness.”

One practical way we can do this in the short term is to not only continue to provide proper accommodations for the homeless but find ways to get landowners and residents involved with a stake in taking care of those less fortunate. We must take down the wall separating one group from the other and build a mutually beneficial dependency that respects both groups. It may drive some people away at first and even slow gentrification, but that is hardly the most important consideration. Over the long term, it will make this city a much better place to live.

Joshua Lewis Berg
Humanist Celebrant


Our obligation to care for the needy and less fortunate is emphasized in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Although the LDS church has no position on the specific situation of the homeless in Los Angeles, the discussion provides an opportunity to review what the scriptures say, and the role that love and concern for others should play in our lives.

The Book of Mormon defines charity as “the pure love of Christ” — a type of love that makes the well-being of others a paramount concern. We believe that, as Paul noted, possessing this quality represents the apex of Christian devotion. We teach charity as a principle and encourage its practice. Through the church’s welfare and humanitarian programs, members are given opportunities to give of our time through service, and to contribute money to provide for others.

As mentioned previously, I can’t be sure what the church might say officially about Los Angeles and the obligation of cities to the homeless. As a result, what follows is my personal view, influenced by church teachings.

The responsibility of cities to the homeless is no greater than our own. I don’t think we can expect local leaders to be more compassionate than the voters who elect them. If enough people were to voice concern for the homeless, local leaders would be more likely to adopt responsive policies and property owners would be more likely to support them. If enough people were to act independently to help the homeless, the burden on public services would be reduced.

The first step in helping the homeless is to look to inward. When we establish compassion and caring as personal standards, the question of government responsibility will be much easier to answer.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta