() — California has spent a staggering $17.5 billion trying to combat the Homelessness in just four years. But, in the same time period, from 2018 to 2022, the state’s homeless population grew. Half of all Americans living on the streets, federal data shows, live in California.
Across the country, homelessness is on the rise. But California is adding 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, senior adviser on homelessness to Gov. Gavin Newsom, told . “And that’s not what people want to hear. I get it, we get it.”
But at $17.5 billion, the state could, in theory, have paid rent for every homeless person in California for those four years, even with the state’s high housing costs.
“That’s reductive…Maybe that works for me, because I don’t have significant behavioral health issues,” Elliott said. “If two-thirds of the people on the streets right now are experiencing mental health symptoms, we can’t just pay our rent.”
The certainly 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 2.5 million more units in California,” Elliott said. “This is a problem that has been decades and decades in the making because of the political decisions we have made. We are not blameless. And when I say we, I mean Republicans and Democrats alike.”
Through 2024, a total of $20.6 billion has been allocated to combat homelessness. Nearly $4 billion went to local governments to spend on anti-homelessness initiatives. $3.7 billion went into a program called Project Homekey, which also funds local governments, but specifically to purchase properties like motels and commercial buildings to convert into permanent affordable housing. So far 13,500 units have been finished. “It’s not enough,” Elliott said. “But reversing the slide is the first step in creating an increase.”
Cristina Smith recently moved into one of the new affordable units in Los Angeles. After five years without a home, like many, she had given up hope. “I thought it was fake,” she told affiliate KCBS. “Until they gave me the keys and then I said this is real. You don’t believe it after a while.”
Another $2 billion of the huge pot went into tax credits for developers to build affordable housing, which has seen 481 new units completed so far, with thousands more anticipated. Another US$ 2,000 million went to start affordable housing projects, stalled by the shortage of funds. And nearly $2 billion was spent on emergency rental assistance.
In recent years, California has suffered through devastating wildfire seasons and, of course, the covid pandemic. Both put additional pressure on housing.
“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,” she added.
Dr. Margot Kushel, who worked with Elliott to formulate a pandemic plan for the state’s homeless population, has just released a sizable report, the results of a survey of nearly 3,200 homeless people across California, which she says is “the largest representative study of homelessness since the mid-1990s.” The state commissioned Kushel, who is director of UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, to find out who is homeless in California and why, in the hope that her data can help hone the state’s response to what Newsom has called “a shame”.
Politicians and many voters want solutions. Newsom dedicated his entire 2020 State of California address to this topic. In a recent poll, 84% of Californians said they believe homelessness is a “very serious problem.” In Los Angeles, the issue dominated last year’s mayoral race with the winner, Karen Bass, declaring a state of emergency over homelessness on her first day in office.
Kushel’s report dispelled some myths. Number one, that a lot of people on the street don’t want a home. Not true, says Kushel. “The overwhelming majority of the participants wanted permanent housing,” he 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 because of the climate and the more liberal approach to homelessness. And therefore, California owes them nothing. Not true, says Kushel.
“Nine out of 10 people lost their stable housing here. They are Californians,” she said. “We have to create housing for all Californians.”
Myth number 3: that mental illness is the driving force behind homelessness. Yes, 66% of those surveyed reported “symptoms of current mental health problems,” 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 it, half of the people, had severe depression or severe anxiety; it is not surprising if he was homeless,” she said.
Still, tackling mental health issues among the homeless is a high point in the Newsom administration’s effort. “We’re taking a new approach,” he said last spring when he introduced his mental health plan, “instead of reforming a system that’s fundamentally broken at the margins.”
Part of the new approach is, controversially, to effectively compel some people to receive mental health help, allowing relatives, social services or medical personnel to refer people for consideration for a treatment program ordered by a court.
“Just addressing the mental health side of things can’t solve the problem,” says Kushel. “Not when the median rent is $2,200 for a two-bedroom apartment.”
Which brings us back to the need for 2.5 million more homes. The state has a plan to build them all by 2030. But here in California, as elsewhere, housing and zoning decisions are up to local governments.
“We have communities in this state that refuse to build low-income housing,” Elliott, the governor’s adviser, told . “Because they say they are just rapists and child molesters. So that, that, that’s the dynamic we’re dealing with, right?”
The state is suing several wealthy 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 problem for homeless people is the economy,” Kushel said. “People just don’t have the money… to pay the rent.”
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 have prevented them from becoming homeless,” Kushel said of the people surveyed. “For many of them, that $300 or $500 a month would be enough.”
The Newsom administration is spending more to combat homelessness than this state ever has before. Before 2018 there was no coherent state plan or funding structure. But, they say, the state needs help. “The federal government needs to step in and do what it used to do, which is provide housing as collateral,” Elliott said. He says that for every four Americans who need a housing voucher, there is only one available.
“Food stamps are a guarantee. Health is a guarantee. Public education is a guarantee,” she said. “Accommodation? 25% chance. Spin the wheel.”
When asked how state officials have reacted to his report and recommendations, Kushel responded: “I think they agree. I hope, I think, that you are relatively in agreement. I don’t agree with everything, but I think they are trying.” When asked what he disagreed with, Kushel demurred: “I don’t know. I mean, as you can hear, I really want to have a unique focus on getting people permanent housing and I think that’s the root of how we end homelessness.” She agreed that some politicians might be more focused on getting people off the streets, into shelters or motels, rather than offering them permanent housing.
“I couldn’t disagree more with that characterization,” Elliott said. “We are facing a tidal wave and we are doing the best we can, to mix up the metaphors a little bit, to row and try to stay afloat and do the best we can as we try to make the necessary fundamental change both in California and nationally. to really address homelessness.”
In Los Angeles, the epicenter of California’s homeless crisis, Mayor Bass launched a program called Inside Safe, to clear out street encampments. At a recent roundtable with reporters, she was eager to announce the success of moving more than 1,300 people off the streets to motels, but she refused to even estimate how many of those people were moved to permanent housing. The city’s 2023-2024 budget includes $250 million for Inside Safe. Of the total, US$110 million will be used to pay for temporary motels. US$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 isn’t even a plan to move her to a permanent home yet. She says that she is frustrated and losing hope.
There is no magic solution.
“They’re trying really hard to keep people alive,” Kushel said. “And they’re stuck in this vicious cycle of not having the housing to send people to.”