September 15, 2018 Feature

The Role of Planning and Law in Solving Homelessness

By Wendie L. Kellington

The Problem

We all share a goal to get the homeless off the streets, off freeway underpasses, parks, bikeways, busses, and subways and into lawful situations. Neither law nor planning alone can solve the curse of homelessness. But law and planning can ease the rules, develop new ones, and provide places where the homeless are allowed to exist. After all, community design has planned for nearly everything else—commerce, industry, traditional housing, day cares, schools, sidewalks, and parking stalls for people in wheelchairs, dog parks for people with dogs, day and night parking places for bikes and cars, and jails for criminals. Cities with thousands of homeless people are capable of planning for the existence of their vast unhoused.

The current situation is untenable—businesses don’t like panhandling, camping, and filth on their doorsteps; consumers don’t like to confront panhandlers, or step over people in doorways to shop; employees don’t like commuting to work on busses and subways sticky with human waste, with seats wet with urine so commuters cannot sit; neighborhoods don’t like the garbage strewn by homeless encampments on their flanks; and homeless encampments make public parks and greenways unsafe or at least seem that way. Hospitals and medical personnel cringe at releasing homeless patients with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases for the 5th or 10th time, knowing a pattern of not taking medications as required means an ER will see the homeless again and the potential for drug resistance increases each time. The homeless—who are not all panhandlers, filthy, or dangerous—do not like their desperate, unsafe, and inhuman situation either.

Yet, cities throughout the country follow essentially the same template—they criminalize and penalize the homeless; they conduct grand “sweeps” in which police tow the cars and RV homes of otherwise homeless people; in which police march through homeless encampments, throwing away people’s tents, coats, and other meager possessions. Officials shine lights in homeless people’s eyes when they sleep—demanding they go elsewhere, knowing full well that there is no elsewhere for them to lawfully go.

In the absence of providing places for the homeless to lawfully be, cities across the country will continue to see tent encampments blooming along freeways, bike and walking corridors, commercial districts, and industrial areas; they will continue to see armies of cars and old RVs occupied by people and families desperate for a door to lock dotting side streets, streets along public parks, streets behind shopping centers, and parking lots. But like Sisyphus’s rock, while bureaucrats unleash an army of tow trucks to dutifully haul someone’s everything to an impoundment lot for destruction, other cars and RVs emerge in place of the last and, similarly, shortly after the dust settles from a sweep, another encampment moves in. Homeless people are human beings, not homeless vapor.

The American work ethic makes it hard for housed people to spend public dollars on the homeless—i.e., we think to ourselves that the homeless are lazy, no good, entitled frauds, drug addicts, or criminals, who should simply clean up, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and work like the rest of us. Even if we presume this view, we want and need for the homeless to be somewhere, and that means we have to provide places where they can live. Throwing them in jail, the only option otherwise available, is profoundly expensive and solves nothing.

Current Programs Won’t Solve the Problem

The current long-term options of building new affordable or low-income housing or converting existing units to permanent affordable or subsidized (usually apartment or single-room occupancy (SRO)) housing are important, but they have not and cannot house the homeless during the year or more they languish on a wait list for housing they may or may not qualify for when something opens up. In fact, despite significant efforts, homelessness in the United States is increasing. According to the 2017 federal “Point-in-Time” count, there were an estimated 554,000 homeless people in the United States.1 But experts agree that the count is an underestimate.2 One expert estimates that around two million people are homeless annually.3 Consider that in April 2018, the Washington Post wrote that “the CDC issued a statement in December noting that with 19 million Americans facing ‘housing insecurity, and 28 million without health insurance, the risk of homelessness and poor health is a concern for 1 out of 8 Americans.’”4

Whatever the number of homeless in America, in 2017, the overall amount of homelessness increased by about 1%; and there was a 3% decline in the number of people sleeping in homeless shelters. We are going backwards in our goal to get the homeless off the streets.

And, there are three realities that make it unlikely we will see a reprieve.

First, poverty is increasing. There are fewer and fewer jobs following decades of job market changes in which first people living on the margins were left behind, then family wage jobs fled to cheap third-world labor markets, and now robots are replacing, at a dizzying pace, other human workers. Many of the jobs left are low wage, temporary, lack benefits, and otherwise fail to make it possible for people to have a home, day care, and work.

Poverty is also increasing because baby boomers are retiring in record numbers with inadequate retirement savings. A recent study shows that 39% of workers have saved nothing for retirement and, of those who saved, 47% report the total value of their savings and investments to be less than $25,000 and 24% have less than $1,000 in savings.5 Most retirees rely on Social Security for a majority of their retirement income.6 A retirement that relies on the $1,405 average monthly Social Security benefit7 faces the reality that the aggregate cost of medical insurance, uncovered medical expenses, and housing—even “affordable” housing—will exceed the average monthly Social Security benefit. Not surprisingly, somewhere between half8 to a third of homeless people are over 50 years old.9 It appears evident the elderly homeless population is growing and is likely to continue.10 A good chunk of our retiring elderly will find themselves homeless.

Second, the shuttering of mental institutions and the mental patient’s rights movement of the 1970s has placed severely ill people on the street who are incapable of caring for themselves and who pose a danger to themselves or the rest of us, yet not enough so to be institutionalized “against their will” but they have no rational will to exercise.

Third, the growth of land use policies restricting land supply and adding expensive bureaucratic layers to any type of housing for the homeless adds significantly to the cost of housing and makes it often impossible to provide the nontraditional solutions that provide the answer to this crisis.

The undeniable role of poverty in homelessness is self-evident. The role of mental health policies and land use policies is less so, and is worth a closer look.

Shuttering Mental Institutions, Freeing the Insane

A disproportionate number of homeless people—some studies say one-third of men and two-thirds of homeless women11—are mentally ill, many severely so.12 Dr. E. Fuller Torrey writes that among the “hardcore homeless,” the “incidence of severe mental illness is much higher; [one] study . . . found that ‘every one of [the hardcore homeless] was mentally ill.’”

Many are acutely dangerous to themselves and to the rest of us.13 But our ability to respond to the plight of the seriously mentally ill homeless is hamstrung by laws that require leaving the mentally ill alone unless they are essentially actively harming themselves or someone else and the reality that police have nowhere to put them other than a medical hospital, which has incentives to release them as soon as possible.14 Dr. Torrey quips that to commit a mentally ill person, he “has to be either killing himself in front of the admitting doctor or trying to kill the admitting doctor.”15 There is an obvious disconnect between the standard for committing the mentally ill and the fact that the homeless mentally ill are often volatile and can spin into the murderous frenzy of psychosis without any notice or provocation.

Homelessness among the mentally ill has exploded since the 1970s. While the problem is often laid at his door, President Ronald Regan is by no means solely responsible for the plight of the mentally ill or homelessness today.16 Rather, policies of this era were driven by the mental patient’s rights movement, largely championed by the ACLU and New York Chapter lawyer Bruce Ennis (credited with starting the mental health bar).17 Ennis successfully brought cases with the personal goal to “either abolish involuntary commitment or set up so many procedural roadblocks and hurdles that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the state to commit people against their will.”18 Of course, by definition, the mentally ill are unable to voluntarily do anything and, significantly, they do not often recognize they have a mental illness in the first place, let alone when it is necessary for them to check themselves into a mental institution because of it.

Dr. Torrey poignantly observes: “[W]hen we protect the rights of severely mentally ill people so stringently that they cannot be treated, we infringe on the rights of other members of society, sometimes with tragic outcomes.”19 Another writes: “The right to treatment is more fundamental than unrestricted liberty. If we do not provide adequate treatment, we offer the patient no freedom at all.”20

The laws that followed the judicial decisions of the 1960s and 1970s that forbade involuntary commitment of the mentally ill except if they were found to be a danger to themselves or others have endured to this day.21 The “danger to oneself or others” standard has been interpreted so strictly to result in the commitment of almost none of the mad.22 Instead of being institutionalized, the severely mentally ill have been released to live on the streets, where they can be seen today, incapable of caring for themselves and often representing a danger to themselves or the rest of us, but not enough to justify confinement.

One author explains:

For instance, a schizophrenic in Wisconsin, mute and refusing food, ate excrement instead. But he was seen eating it only once, his public defender protested; could the doctor on the witness stand swear that one time would inevitably harm someone? No? Case for committal dismissed. In Washington, D.C., police brought an attractive young woman panhandler, incoherent and hallucinating, to the hospital, where the examining psychiatrist judged her no danger to herself and released her. She was raped and murdered in an alley a few days later.23

Homeless mentally ill people in crisis have no way to cope. They can’t distinguish a lawyer walking to Starbucks from an alien operative. A homeless mentally ill person on the streets may have family who wants to help, but who are prevented from doing so due to very real concerns about personal safety.24 Dr. Torrey reinforces that the relatives of the severely mentally ill have reason for concern, with mothers being particularly at risk.25

While these are sobering statistics for families of the homeless severely mentally ill, it is also sobering for the rest of us. These statistics mean that a large number of the victims of violent crimes at the hands of the severely mentally ill homeless are strangers. A part of the solution to the problem of homelessness must be for society to return to the ability to commit the mentally ill to appropriate care and, yes, confinement.

The Role of Land Use Planning Programs

One of the reasons some people become homeless is they can’t find affordable living quarters. This is a problem of poverty, but it is also a problem worsened by restrictive land use programs. The cost of housing is driven by many factors, but leading ones are constrained land supply and the restrictive regulations that are the hallmarks of a comprehensive land use program. A 2016 study by the National Association of Home Builders “shows that, on average, government regulations account for 24.3% of the final price of a new single-family home.”26 Professor Steven Eagle cites two leading land use economists who have concluded that America’s housing problem is worse in communities with significant land use restrictions. Those economists explain: “In the places where housing is quite expensive, building restrictions appear to have created these high prices.”27

Today, jurisdictions committed to land use planning have the least affordable housing in the country, and find themselves among the communities with the worst homeless problems, because land use regulations (1) limit supplies of buildable land, and (2) make housing even more expensive.28

Early on in the history of land use planning, the dissenting justice of the California Supreme Court in Agins v. City of Tiberon29 predicted:

Perhaps of greater concern is the consequence that Tiburon—and many other governmental agencies enacting similar land use plans—will price properties within their control out of reach of most people. Only the most wealthy will be able to afford purchase of and construction on lands in such areas. The environment which Tiburon seeks to preserve will disproportionately benefit that wealthy landowner, whose home will be surrounded by open space, unobstructed view and unpolluted atmosphere.

Some communities answer by imposing affordable stick-built housing requirements on private developers. The problem with this approach is that private developers pass the costs of those affordable housing programs on to the buyers and renters of traditional housing, increasing their cost and making traditional housing less accessible for the next layer of worker not yet homeless, creating a vicious cycle of unaffordability.30

Another problem is that in many if not most communities, land use policies make it impossible to designate parking lots or other areas for the homeless to camp or park their cars or RVs or to even create so-called “tiny house communities.”

We used to provide places for the homeless to go, with shocking honesty about the reasons for conscripting a person into service there. The “poor farm”31 or “almshouse” was a public facility where the homeless and poor were required to go and work to be “reformed” into productive workers. These places were largely operated as farms, the food from which produced income for the facility and fed residents and staff.32 Many were no place anyone wanted to live, while others became relatively comfortable communities.33 Involuntary incarceration of people on poor farms was based on the unilateral decisions of government officials or the petitions of citizens. For example, a petition of 10 citizens to the “Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Haverville,” Massachusetts, asked that a certain Mr. Kelly be “removed” from his home “or otherwise dealt with or put in a farm for the poor” because he was “a poor man with a large family from bad habits and incapacity” and that he “does not and cannot make proper provision for his family who are in consequence in a very destitute and miserable condition” and that “his idle habits and his family are a great encumbrance on the neighborhood.”34

Regardless of how they got there, many poor farm “inmates” stayed for decades, including individuals and whole families, and did not leave even when they could.35 Despite their steep drawbacks, many poorhouses developed a sense of community and were considered “home” by the residents.36

We have gone backwards in the care of the homeless from the days before the Civil Rights Act, before Women’s Suffrage, before words like “inclusive communities” and “livability” were coined. Thousands of homeless people in our communities live in circumstances worse than a dog pound, certainly worse than a zoo animal, and way worse than a poor farm.

Imagine for a moment the plight of a homeless person: no place to get out of the rain, or snow, or scorching heat; no place to sleep; no place to store possessions including medicine, especially medicine that must be refrigerated; no place to store food, clothing, photographs, or legal papers; no place to cook food; no place to shower; no restrooms; no garbage facilities; no official to take seriously your assault, rape, or other victimization even though homeless people are more likely to be victims of violent crime37 than the housed.38

If the parked car or RV you live in happens to look like the residence of a homeless person, and just one person complains to the government—today’s equivalent of the “Overseer”—your car or RV can be towed away on the fiction that it is abandoned, its contents including animal companions effectively stolen by government officials, without any recourse.

The homeless can’t find a free RV on Craigslist and get into an RV park because (1) they are full, and (2) they only take newer, more expensive models. The homeless can’t get into a mobile home park because (1) the cost of mobile homes has gone through the roof,39 and (2) even if a homeless person can manage to afford a mobile home in a park, this population can’t pass the beauty contest of eviction history, credit check, income requirements, or criminal background check. They also can’t get into apartments because of these problems; often even subsidized ones reject such a homeless applicant. And some have dogs, large dogs of varying breeds, which are often prohibited in any of the otherwise available options—including much of the stock of subsidized housing.

Despite what you may have heard, if a homeless person figures out how to call “211” or to search the web for resources, they are unlikely to find any help. Any help requires many phone calls, to dead ends and voicemails no one will ever return, and eventually the cell phone battery goes dead. Of course, there is no place to plug in the dead cell phone, so the search ends. If a homeless person miraculously connects with someone, they will almost certainly be told that any help won’t involve housing, and what help there might be will be two or more weeks away, often requiring an appointment. The homeless lack the social skills required for effective communication with the usually bored and disinterested person on the other end of the line.

So tents and RVs are illegally everywhere they aren’t allowed to be, subject to official tows and sweeps. I have personally witnessed a deeply mentally ill homeless woman cry as the City of Portland, Oregon, towed everything she had away—the RV, the mattress her grandma bought, the blankets, pillows, dog food, the clothes, the head lamp, the ice chest with milk for cereal, the pumpkin pie she splurged on as a sad treat for the holiday. And the tow people came armed with cruel city police (“you better be nowhere near that thing when we tow”), and then the broken homeless shell of a person stood in the rain, crying because she didn’t even have her coat on that cold winter day, because it too was towed away. This is what is happening.

Solving Homelessness Requires an Understanding and Recognition of What Human Beings Need for Social Stability

Human poverty warehouses—large apartment projects, shelters, or large SRO projects—are not the answer. First they are expensive, and second they fail. “Big box” human warehouses, reminiscent of the failed “projects” of the 1950s and 1960s,40 are well documented to spawn social problems from gangs to drug dealing and violence; they are monuments to misery that were eventually blown up by the very governments that built them.41

If nothing else, science gives us the reason to avoid big box human housing—these behemoths result in unhealthy social networks.42 Housing for our half a million to two million homeless people should be established for a number of occupants who can be accountable to one another and be cohesive. Our neocortex limits the number of social interactions we can effectively maintain. We should pay attention to biology. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar matched up the size of animal brains to the size of effective social groups and discovered that the maximum number of people in an effective social network is 150, that intimate associations are composed of five people, and that the next effective grouping is 15 and then about 50.43 It turns out that hunter-gatherer societies, Roman legions, effective military groups, and effective businesses had about 150 people.44 According to Professor Dunbar, people who need to work together successfully require smaller numbers: “If you want to have an organizational unit that involves very, very close working together, you cannot do it with a group of 150: you may have to have 15, because that’s the limit, at that level of intimacy, that people can work together.”45 A community of otherwise homeless people will only be effective if it is set up to be a community.

Moreover, psychologist Abraham Maslow46 taught us that people must have their basic needs met before they can be motivated to do things like enter drug rehab or job training or seek happiness or otherwise seek their potential. It seems equally obvious that some part of the homeless population will only join the ranks of the sober or employed or otherwise join society when their basic needs for survival are met. It is this model of human needs that drives current policy to house the unhoused. The so-called “Housing First” model first introduced in 199247 provides housing to the homeless without preconditions such as the applicant proving sobriety, or mental stability.48 But even though the program has been around some 26 years, it has not solved the problem of homelessness. Housing the homeless in a paradigm that works for the housed—with the delays that attend tax benefit planning for the developers, “visioning,” and “charrettes” for expensive land supply acquisitions and housing projects—does not provide housing in adequate numbers to solve the problem. Rather, since 2001, one-eighth of America’s low-income housing has been permanently lost, and the United States needs seven million more affordable apartments for low-income families.49 Neither government nor the private sector is keeping pace with the need using current models.

Housing the unhoused will be effective if (1) we provide places for the homeless to go at the moment we discover their homelessness, (2) the unhoused are willing and able to go to the places provided, (3) the places are socially effective, (4) the places can be and are supported with social and medical services, and (5) the homeless are required to go there.

Solving Homelessness Requires Meeting the Homeless Where They Are, with What They Need, in Real Time

Solutions: no one should be turned away from housing because they are an addict, not in recovery, have a dog, a criminal history, a history of eviction, or a bad credit history or history of being a “problem.” Getting homeless into housing should be simple and fast. Land use codes should change to allow places for all homeless people to exist.

Paying attention to Professor Dunbar’s work, roughly like groups should be placed together: veterans housed together, families with children together, the mentally ill together, addicts not in recovery together, those in recovery together, young adults together, and so forth. Targeted services (taken from existing providers) should be provided to the particular community, ensuring their basic needs are met and that they can then begin a journey to recovery, whatever that may mean for them.

Regulatory scaffolding must allow housing to be established quickly, inexpensively, and without a lot of bureaucratic red tape. Land use codes must be changed to allow long-term RV living, long-term camping, and tiny house living, as an alternative to traditional stick-built housing. These facilities must be allowed to have porta potties,50 portable hand washing facilities, a communal area with a kitchen, shared showering facilities (perhaps in an RV), garbage receptacles, laundry facilities, electricity for charging cell phones, and lockers. They should be developed for 15–35 residents.

Instead of towing RVs to an impound lot, government would tow them to a suitable place where those RVs may park and stay.

Instead of tent encampment sweeps where people’s belongings are thrown in the trash, government officials can transfer the contents and occupants to suitable tent communities.

Homeless people who do not have their own camping equipment or RV can be housed inexpensively in publicly acquired models and types. If the RV does not have sanitation or cooking facilities, the RV can be towed to a government-supplied place that has such facilities, instead of to an impound lot for destruction. If an RV is filled with garbage, there is no reason not to provide a garbage receptacle and insist that its otherwise homeless occupants use it.

I have heard government officials complain that the RVs the homeless live in are not fit for human habitation. This is Chardonnay sipping baloney. Especially for homeless women, as between a door that locks and being on the streets, the homeless don’t much care that the housed would not choose to live in their RV or tent.

And, if the RV is so bad, then the official should be required to provide the homeless person another used and inexpensive RV and allow the homeless person to transfer their belongings to such alternate. A used older RV is a lot cheaper than a stick-built apartment. And a lot more effective than nothing.

Land use rules should be changed to allow housing operated like youth hostels, limited to 15–35 residents.

Land use rules should be adjusted to allow defunct shopping centers and motels to be repurposed for homeless housing, and medical and social services offices. Conversion to these purposes should not be required, but should be an option for owners, including banks, that have no other clear use for such facilities.

Land use rules should be adjusted to allow combinations of these housing types on a single property. Kitschy old motels can be converted to nice and inexpensive SRO living, sometimes with the bonus of a pool and hot tub. Providing the option to live in an RV or tent is certainly not conscripting homeless people to something worse than what they now have, and it is a lot better than the street. A legal place to exist where a person need not worry about officials lurking to rob, move, or arrest them is the answer.

Priority for stick-built traditional housing (apartment or otherwise) should be given to families with minor children. These facilities should have intensive family services including parental training and support, job training, and high-quality preschools, as well as high-quality day care including before and after school care. They should be locationally situated so that the minor children enroll and stay in quality public schools, and supports should be in place to provide the children with suitable educational services to ensure the kids receive support from their public schools. Such facilities could partner with local experts in child psychology so the children who need it can participate in on-site or close by relationship, anger management, and other social skills courses. Parents in need of recovery would have such services provided to them. Priority for high-quality nutritious meal services would be baked in to this housing type.

SRO housing should be prioritized for disabled people including mentally ill and the physically disabled. SROs for the mentally ill should have intensive services and medication management.

The youth hostel model should be prioritized to serve homeless youth and nondisabled elderly, with intensive services to meet the needs of the particular youth or elder group involved. Programming would include teaching homeless youth how to get along in society and basic life skills—things they missed being on the street. Elder group hostels would include connections to volunteer opportunities (perhaps institutionalize connections between youth and elderly facilities), inexpensive but interesting elder hostel-type adventures, and in-house recreation.

The stick-built housing facilities—traditional and SROs—should be composed of no more than 150 residents to provide the maximum group for an effective and connected social sphere.51 They should not be concentrated in one area, but dispersed throughout a community.52 The severely mentally ill probably need SROs on a smaller model of 15–35 people; mental health professionals can work that out.

Food trucks should come by periodically to all of the housing types, to ensure the homeless are properly fed. Again the goal is to ensure that the basic needs are met, so the population can move on to treatment and to join society, if that is possible for them.

State laws must be changed such that the severely mentally ill homeless who refuse treatment and medication management may be brought “involuntarily” to facilities where they can be stabilized and required to take medication for their illnesses. If and when such people are released from such facilities, they should be released into supportive housing programs designed to maintain their stability.53

And for a civilized society to work, two critical laws are necessary: (1) no one can be allowed to be homeless, and (2) the homeless must have a place to live where they are required to go. With lawful places for the homeless to go, vagrancy and trespass laws can be enforced.

Failing to do this is making regular housed people act crazy.54 For example, on a hot August 2016 night in Portland, Oregon, a 46-year-old “construction worker and married dad” was fed up with a homeless person’s RV loitering in his neighborhood for many days. So, he did something out of character—threw a PVC pipe packed with explosive powder under the “dilapidated” RV occupied by three otherwise homeless people and a dog.55 The bomb malfunctioned and no one was hurt. The man somehow managed to get off with probation and a misdemeanor charge even though planting a bomb is a felony. But he felt so bad he tried to help the homeless woman and her companions by buying her a used RV in much better condition than the old one. He had it cleaned, replaced a battery, and paid for the title to be transferred to the woman’s name. According to the Oregonian newspaper: “[The homeless woman] is now living in the RV but hasn’t been able to get it registered because she doesn’t have insurance . . . . [She] moves the RV around from time to time but doesn’t park it near [the man’s] house anymore . . . .” The construction worker husband/dad found a shelter for the homeless woman to live in. But she refused “because she couldn’t bring her dog.”56

My proposal ensures there is an RV community that allows dogs where this woman’s RV and her dog can go to live as long as they want.


How do we fund this? We are spending a lot of money on the existing scourge of homelessness.57 But how much do we spend? No one knows. Thus, first, we must figure out what financial resources we have—stunningly, we have no idea the aggregate spending of nonprofits, state, local, and federal governments on homelessness.

Second, once we figure out what we have to spend, we should prioritize how we spend it—not all on traditional housing, but on our priorities to get the homeless off the street, which means embracing the right, including nontraditional, solutions. We must prioritize taking really good care of the kids, on reinstitutionalizing the mad, and on programs to house the homeless immediately, in campground parking lots, RV lots, old repurposed motels, and so forth—truly affordable housing options that get the homeless off the street, immediately.


The existing homeless problem is untenable and unhealthy. We need only be reminded of the hepatitis outbreak in October 2017 among the homeless in San Diego that killed at least 21 people, threatening all of us. A hotel concierge told me, a visitor for a conference, that if I insisted on running the San Diego esplanade in the afternoon, I must not use the public restrooms to avoid exposure.

Since we cannot supply stick-built housing for all of the homeless and since they are willing, and in fact trying, to live in tents, RVs, and a variety of other places, we can meet them where they are and provide a lawful living situation with the basic facilities and services they desperately need.

If my solution is not a good one, then someone needs to come up with one better. One thing is certain: continuing to do what we are doing and expecting different results is insanity.


1. U.S. Dep’t of Hous. & Urban Dev., The 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress 4 (2017).

2. Nat’l Law Ctr. on Homelessness & Poverty, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities (2014) [hereinafter No Safe Place],

3. Alastair Gee et al., How America Counts Its Homeless—and Why So Many Are Overlooked, Guardian, Feb. 16, 2017,

4. Tim Craig, Homeless Deaths Surge, Wash. Post, Apr. 13, 2018,

5. 2017 Retirement Confidence Survey, Emp. Benefit Res. Inst. (2017),

6. Paul N. Van de Water & Kathy Ruffing, Social Security Benefits Are Modest, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities (Aug. 7, 2017),

7. Fact Sheet: Social Security, Soc. Security Admin., (last visited July 9, 2018); see Monthly Statistical Snapshot, Soc. Security Admin., (last updated June 2018).

8. 2016’s Shocking Homelessness Statistics, Soc. Solutions (June 21, 2016),

9. CeliaSue Hecht, A Third of the Homeless People in America Are Over 50. I’m One of Them, Vox (Sept. 29, 2016),

10. Adam Nagourney, Old and on the Street: The Graying of America’s Homeless, N.Y. Times, May 31, 2016,

11. Elaine Carmen Guerra, Ronald Reagan and the Federal Deinstitutionalization of Mentally Ill Patients, Penn St. (Feb. 8, 2017),

12. E. Fuller Torrey, The Insanity Offense: How America’s Failure to Treat the Seriously Mentally Ill Endangers Its Citizens 124 (2008); see Mental Health, Homeless Hub, (last visited July 9, 2018).

13. Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12, at 124.

14. Cynthia Hubert, “It Was a Scary Thing.” Hospital Dumps Senior at Homeless Shelter. He’s Not the First, Sacramento Bee, Jan. 8, 2018,; Becky Oberg, Hospitals Release Mentally Ill Patients to the Streets, Healthy Place (May 7, 2017),

15. E. Fuller Torrey, Nowhere to Go: The Tragic Odyssey of the Homeless Mentally Ill (1988).

16. Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12.

17. Id.; David Wagner, The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution 135–36 (2005); Guerra, supra note 11; Richard D. Lyons, How Release of Mental Patients Began, N.Y. Times, Oct. 30, 1984,; Joel John Roberts, Did Reagan’s Crazy Mental Health Policies Cause Today’s Homelessness?, Poverty Insights (Oct. 14, 2013),

18. Rael Jean Isaac & Samuel Jan Brakel, Subverting Good Intentions: A Brief History of Mental Health Law “Reform, 2 Cornell J.L. & Pol’y 89, 101–02 (1992); see E. Fuller Torrey, American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System 86 (2014); Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12.

19. Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12, at 124.

20. Stephen Rachlin, quoted in Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12, at 161.

21. See, e.g., Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 5000 et seq.; Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12, at ch. 8.

22. Such a determination involves a prediction of future behavior, and as Yogi Berra famously said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

23. Myron Magnet, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass 117–18 (1993).

24. Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12, at 147.

25. Id. at 149.

26. Regulations Add a Whopping $84,671 to New Home Prices, Nat’l Ass’n Home Builders (May 9, 2016),

27. Steven J. Eagle, “Affordable Housing” as Metaphor, 44 Fordham Urb. L.J. 301, 356 (2017).

28. U.S. Dep’t of Hous. & Urban Dev., “Not in My Backyard”: Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing (1991); Randal O’Toole, The Best-Laid Plans (2007); Randal O’Toole, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths (2000); San Jose Case Study, Part One: The Urban-Growth Boundary, Thoreau Inst., (last visited July 9, 2018).

29. 598 P.2d 25 (Cal. 1979), aff’d, 447 U.S. 255 (1980).

30. Robert C. Ellickson, The Irony of “Inclusionary” Zoning, 54 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1167 (1981).

31. Also called a “poorhouse”—we use the term “poor farm” here.

32. Wagner, supra note 17, at 2–3.

33. Id. at 145.

34. Id. at 22.

35. Id. at 26, 29, 60, 159.

36. Id. at 2–3, 20, 26, 30, 85, 138–45.

37. Torrey, The Insanity Offense, supra note 12, at 137.

38. Nina Liss-Schultz, Homeless People Are Older and Sicker Than Ever Before. Here’s One Way to Help, Mother Jones (June 30, 2016),

39. A problem made worse by rent control. See Guggenheim v. City of Goleta, 638 F.3d 1111 (9th Cir. 2010). The cost of rent control is merely passed on to buyers of mobile homes in parks, raising the cost of mobile homes beyond the reach of many.

40. Ben Austen, High Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (2018); The 7 Most Infamous U.S. Public Housing Projects, NewsOne (Sept. 29, 2011),; Gideon Kanner, The Public Housing Tragedy, Gideon’s Trumpet (Apr. 16, 2018),; Why Did Pruitt-Igoe Fail?, PD&R Edge (Nov. 3, 2014),

41. Howard Husock, How Public Housing Harms Cities, City J. (Winter 2003),

42. Diane Mapes, Anonymity Opens Up Split Personality Zone, NBC News (Sept. 24, 2008),; Jonathan Taplin, Anonymity Brings Out the Worst in Humans, Time (Sept. 11, 2015),

43. Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (1997).

44. Your Brain Limits You to Just Five BFFs, MIT Tech. Rev. (Apr. 29, 2016),

45. Robin Dunbar on Dunbar Numbers, Soc. Sci. Space (Nov. 4, 2013),

46. Saul McLeod, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Simply Psychol. (May 21, 2018),

47. Bettina Chang, The Ever-Evolving Difficulties of Giving Housing to the Homeless, Pac. Standard (May 15, 2014),

48. Benjamin F. Henwood et al., Maslow and Mental Health Recovery: A Comparative Study of Homeless Programs for Adults with Serious Mental Illness, 42 Admin. & Pol’y Mental Health & Mental Health Servs. Res. 220 (2015),

49. No Safe Place, supra note 2; Bill Quigley, 10 Facts about Homelessness, Huff Post (Oct. 13, 2014),

50. Adequately secured so they can’t be tipped over.

51. Dunbar, supra note 43.

52. The reasons for why not concentrating any form of public housing in one place is important are well laid out in the book by Ben Austen, High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.

53. See Torrey, Nowhere to Go, supra note 15, at 212: “A realistic system is one that would allow for legal representation of patients and their right to appeal. It would counter balance these rights, however, with the rights of society to treat individuals who need treatment, and it would require continuing treatment where indicated as a condition for the patient to live outside the hospital.”

54. Community opposition to the paired issues of people living on the streets and housing for those people nearby where they live or work means, at least initially, homes for the homeless may need to be super sited, as the Los Angeles mayor recently concluded. Adam Nagourney & Inyoung Kang, California Today: Los Angeles’s New Plan to House the Homeless, N.Y. Times, Apr. 16, 2018,

55. Aimee Green, Man Angry with Homeless Tosses Homemade Bomb under Dilapidated RV, Avoids Jail Time, Oregonian, Jan. 23, 2017,

56. Id.

57. Ending Chronic Homelessness in 2017, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (2015),


By Wendie L. Kellington

Wendie L. Kellington is president of the Kellington Law Group P.C. She may be reached at This article is based on the Richard F. Babcock Faculty Keynote Address, “The Role of Planning and Law in Solving Homelessness,” presented at the 32nd Annual Land Use Institute at Detroit Mercy School of Law on April 20, 2018. The author is grateful for the thoughtful review and comments supplied by Professor Gideon Kanner on the original paper submitted for the keynote.