California has spent billions to fight homelessness. The problem got worse

Los Angeles

California spent a whopping $17.5 billion trying to do it fight homelessness in just four years. But over the same time frame, from 2018 to 2022, the state’s homeless population actually increased. Half of Americans living outside on the streets, federal data show, live in California.

Across the country, homelessness is on the rise. But California adds more homeless people each year than any other state. More than 170,000 homeless people now live here.

“The problem would be much worse without these interventions,” Jason Elliott, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s top homelessness adviser, told CNN. “And that’s not what people want to hear. I understand, we understand.”

But with $17.5 billion, the state could, in theory, have paid just the rent for every homeless person in California for the four years, even at the high costs of state housing.

“It’s reductive… Maybe that would work for me because I don’t have significant behavioral health issues.” Elliott said. “If two-thirds of people on the streets right now are experiencing mental health symptoms, we can’t just pay their rent.”

A new study found that most of California's homeless people last owned a home in California, dispelling the myth that people come to the state specifically for homeless relief.

Of course, the reductive math would leave nearly $4 billion for services like mental health treatment. But even if California wanted to pay rent for every homeless person, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to go around.

“We need another 2.5 million units in California,” Elliott said. “This is a problem that has been building for decades and decades because of the political choices we’ve made. We are not without fault. And when I say we, I mean Republicans and Democrats alike.”

A total of $20.6 billion has been allocated through 2024 to combat homelessness. Nearly $4 billion went to local governments to spend on anti-homelessness initiatives. $3.7 billion was for a program called Project Homekey, which also funds local governments, but specifically to buy properties like motels and commercial buildings to turn them into permanent, affordable housing. 13,500 units have been completed so far. “It’s not enough,” Elliott said. “But reversing the slide is the first step to creating growth.”

Jason Elliott acknowledges widespread frustration with the pace of change, while insisting that the investment California has made is money well spent.

Cristina Smith recently moved into one of the new affordable units in Los Angeles. After five years without a home, she, like many, gave up hope. “I thought it was fake,” she CNN affiliate KCBS said. “Until they gave me the keys and then I was like this is real. You don’t believe it after a while.”

Another $2 billion of the giant pot went to tax credits for developers to build affordable housing, which has seen 481 new units completed so far, with thousands more anticipated. Another $2 billion was earmarked to jump-start affordable housing projects stalled by funding shortfalls. And nearly $2 billion was spent on emergency rental assistance.

California has experienced devastating fire seasons and, of course, the Covid pandemic in recent years. Both put extra strain on the casing.

“It’s frustrating, it’s frustrating … It’s frustrating for us,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day, if we really want to solve homelessness in America. We need to build more housing.”

Dr. Margot Kushel, who worked with Elliott to formulate a pandemic plan for the state’s homeless population, just published a consistent report, the results of a survey of nearly 3,200 homeless people in California, which she hails as “the largest representative study of homelessness since the mid-1990s.” Kushel who is the director UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populationswas tasked by the state with finding out who is homeless in California and why, in hopes that its data could help fine-tune the state’s response to what Newsom called “a disgrace.”

Politicians and many voters want solutions. Newsom devoted his entire 2020 State of the State address to the issue. In a recent poll, 84 percent of Californians said they think homelessness is a “very serious problem.” In Los Angeles, the issue dominated last year’s mayoral race with the winner, Karen Bass, declaring a homelessness emergency on her first day in office.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, left, visit a community emergency housing site in San Jose in October 2020, shortly after Newsom announced more funding to combat homelessness shelter.

Kushel’s report dispelled some myths. Number one, that a lot of people on the street don’t want a house. Not true, says Kushel. “Participants overwhelmingly wanted permanent housing,” she concludes in the report.

Number two, that many people on the streets of California are not from California. There is a widespread belief that many people become homeless elsewhere and come to California for the weather and the more liberal approach to homelessness. And therefore California owes them nothing. Not true, says Kushel.

“Nine out of 10 people have lost their permanent homes here. These are Californians,” she said. “We must create housing for all Californians.”

without shelter

Los Angeles is offering motel rooms to the homeless…but with some tough conditions

Myth #3: That mental illness is the driving force behind homelessness. Yes, 66 percent of respondents reported “current symptoms of mental health conditions,” which is the statistic cited by Elliott, the governor’s adviser, to argue that a solution is more complicated than simply writing rent checks. But Kushel questioned whether mental health issues led to homelessness or the other way around.

“Most of them, half the people, had severe depression or severe anxiety – it’s not surprising if you felt homeless,” she said.

Still, addressing mental health issues among the homeless is a major piece of the Newsom administration’s effort. “We’re taking a new approach,” he said last spring when he unveiled his mental health plan, “Instead of reforming at the fringes a system that is fundamentally and fundamentally broken.”

Part of the new approach is, controversially, to effectively force some people into mental health help – allowing relatives, social services or medical staff to refer people to be considered for an ordered treatment program of court.

“Just addressing mental health issues can’t solve the problem,” says Kushel. “Not when the average rent is $2,200 for a two-bedroom.”


See where thousands of homeless people are forced to live in LA

Which brings us back to the need for another 2.5 million homes. The state has a plan to build them all by 2030. But here in California, as elsewhere, decisions about housing and zoning rest with local governments.

“We have communities in this state that refuse to build low-income housing,” Elliott, the governor’s adviser, told CNN. “Because they say it’s all just rapists and child molesters. So that’s the dynamic we’re dealing with, right?”

The state is suing a number of wealthier cities for thwarting the construction of affordable housing within their borders.

There aren’t enough affordable homes in California, so rents are too high.

“The main issue for homelessness is the economy,” Kushel said. “People just don’t have the money to pay the rent.”

Dr. Margot Kushel said getting people into permanent housing -- not just off the street -- needs to be the focus.

So how much money would people need to make up the shortfall and stay in their homes? “One of the surprising things was how optimistic people were that relatively small amounts of money would prevent them from becoming homeless,” Kushel said of the people surveyed. “For a lot of them, that $300 or $500 a month would be fine.”

The Newsom administration is spending more on homelessness than this state has ever done. Prior to 2018, there was no coherent statewide funding plan or structure. But, they say, the state needs help. “The federal government needs to step in and do what they’ve been doing before, which is to provide housing as collateral,” Elliott said. He says that for every four Americans who need a housing voucher, there is only one voucher available.

“Food stamps are a guarantee. Health care is a guarantee. Public education is a guarantee,” he said. “House? 25% chance. Spin the wheel.”

Asked how state officials reacted to the report and her recommendations, Kushel said, “I think they’re on board. Hopefully, I think I’m relatively on board. I don’t agree with everything, but I think they’re trying.” Asked what she disagreed with, Kushel demurred: “Oh my God, I don’t know. I mean, as you can hear, I really want to focus on getting people into permanent housing, and I think that’s the root of how we end homelessness.” She agreed that some politicians might focus on the window of getting people off the street into shelters or motels rather than permanent housing.

“I couldn’t agree more with that characterization,” Elliott said. “We’re facing a big wave and we’re doing the best we can – let’s mix the metaphors a bit – to get out of it and try to tread water and do the best we can while trying to make the fundamental change. needed both in California and nationally to truly address homelessness.”

In Los Angeles, the epicenter of the Golden State’s homeless crisis, Mayor Bass launched a program called Inside Safe to clean up street encampments. At a recent roundtable with reporters, she was eager to trumpet the success of moving more than 1,300 people off the streets into motels, but declined to even estimate how many of those people have been moved into permanent housing. The city’s 2023-2024 budget includes $250 million for Inside Safe. Of that total, $110 million will be used to pay for temporary motels. $21 million will be used for permanent housing.

I know a woman in Los Angeles who was moved from a tent to a motel room almost 200 days ago under Inside Safe. She is still there and says there is not even a plan to move her to a permanent home yet. She says she is frustrated and losing hope.

There is no silver bullet.

“They’re trying hard to keep people alive,” Kushel said. “And they’re kind of stuck in this vicious cycle of not having housing to send people to.”

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