• Alyse DiNapoli

Understanding Homelessness in California: How Did We Get Here?

Updated: Oct 20, 2018

As the California governor race starts to gain momentum, candidates are solidifying their positions on the inevitable housing crisis questions coming their way. The search for the solution has become even more dire, as new reports show that homeless has increased drastically within the last several years, especially in LA and certain parts of the San Francisco Bay area. Home to 24% of the nation’s homeless population, the Golden State has struggled with how to sufficiently shelter and support a vulnerable population that only seems to keep growing, and it’s hard not to partially attribute this to severely stunted growth of affordable housing.

To give some context, California homes have sold for higher costs than the rest of the country for a long time, making "affordable" housing an issue not just for low-income families, but even for those considered middle-class by national standards. The gap between California home prices and the rest of the country started to expand drastically between 1970 and 1980 when the state's average home prices soared to more than 80% higher than the national average. In 2015, average monthly rents were about 50% higher than the rest of the country. There are many alleged culprits, but some point to the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act, which required developers to undergo rigorous analysis to ensure their projects were sustainable.  While viewed as a widely popular and positive piece of legislation, some on the development side argue that local NIMBYs (a cheeky nickname for “Not In My Backyard” activists) abuse the provision by using it to protest new buildings in their neighborhoods. By the time developers and locals battle it out in the courts, the cost of the the project itself balloons. Others point fingers at Prop 13, which incentivizes localities to build commercial buildings instead of residential projects, as the law capped property tax, and commercial sales tax generates more revenue for cities. Others that take heat include the rent-control restricting Contra-Hawkins law and the elimination of the redevelopment agencies in light of the 2011 budget crisis. Perhaps not as highlighted is the high cost and shortage of construction labor that many developers are facing even after the regulatory approvals have been satisfied.

Thankfully, some legislators have succeeded in taking take bold action. In September 2017, Governor Brown signed 15 housing bills aimed at spurring housing production. The bills are predicted to add roughly 14,000 more homes a year, and while it is still much lower than what is needed to keep on par with the population growth, the bills cover problems ranging from funding for affordable housing (i.e., increased transaction fees and bonds) to less restrictive zoning requirements. Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) sponsored SB-35 which demands that many metro areas and counties meet their housing goals or risk losing restrictive and drawn-out permitting and zoning processes.  Allocating the Prop 63 Mental Health Services Act funds to house the chronically homeless with mental health issues was also approved; however, it is now being held up in court, as some mental health advocates claim the money was not originally intended for housing development. The State Assembly also just recently passed AB 2162, which injects $1 billion into housing for those with low incomes and chronically homeless and streamlines the approval process for building permanent supportive housing. Lastly, the controversial SB 8127 is being promoted heavily throughout the state, which would lessen restrictions on getting buildings approved near public transit stations.

However, despite the sweeping passage of a robust housing bill, the next challenge for those who experience homelessness lies in the quality and availability of supportive services. In the LA Times “Gimme Shelter” podcast, Anne English from Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) agreed that permanent supportive housing (PSH) is the ticket to solving chronic homelessness. “It’s been shown to not only work and get people off streets, but it’s been shown for a really long time that it’s way more cost-effective than leaving people on the streets accessing emergency services such as jails, ER and things of that nature...It’s taken some time for it to become the gold standard, or recognized that way,” she said in the interview. Not surprisingly, a report from US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) confirmed that it is actually cheaper to spend money on supportive housing than it is to spend money on the emergency services that are inevitably spent on the chronically homeless, such as healthcare and crisis management.

While PSH is almost unanimously considered the best long-term investment, in reality, it can take several years to develop and even longer to make a substantial impact. In the meantime, a balance between emergency, transitional housing and permanent housing is imperative.  An August 2016 LA Times article noted that the Panama Hotel in Los Angeles used to open 220 rooms for transitional housing for up to 90 days, but because of the funding shift from short-term to long-term housing, it has since been closed down so that permanent housing can be set up with just 72 units. 200 people had to move out during the construction, and some believe it’s made the homeless issue worse in the meantime.

In order to partially offset these obstacles, increasing emphasis on community-wide planning has permeated throughout the local, state and even federal level.  One way to do this is through the the Continuum of Care (CoC) application that localities submit to the US Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) for federal funding under the McKinney-Vento Act. CoC refers to a communities’ allocation of funding and support for emergency, transitional and permanent services within the homeless population. HUD has designed the process so that each community has to craft a single comprehensive CoC application rather than allowing applications from individual providers in a community. According to the report, “HUD’s intent in creating this structured application process was to stimulate community-wide planning and coordination of programs for individuals and families”.

Of course, the application process is the initial step, but day-to-day implementation is more important. Not only is it a requirement for federal HUD funding, but a well-designed and executed coordinated entry system (CES) is crucial for ensuring that communities are truly utilizing limited sources to maximum capacity. CES is a communities’ unique process of quickly assessing and  matching people who experience homelessness to a wide breadth of services, such as childcare, substance abuse rehabilitation or financial planning. Without it, many experience long wait times, fragmented services or simply “slip through the cracks”.

Long Beach has proved to be a success story of sorts when it comes to coordinated entry systems and homeless initiatives in general. A June 2017 CityLab article described the city’s Multi-Service Center as its CES, and it houses a health clinic, case management, development classes and mail center to name a few. The Health Department is also the umbrella for the Housing Authority, making coordination of essential services more seamless. Bureau Manager of Human Services Teresa Chandler mentioned in the article that “Our Continuum of Care board is a 16-person group made up of different entities [in] faith-based organizations, the business sectors, nonprofit sector, folks who are experiencing homelessness or previously experienced homelessness, the school district, and others.” While the homeless count throughout Los Angeles county increased about 23% between 2015-2016, the rate in Long Beach actually decreased by 21%.

Hopefully Long Beach’s example reverberates to other counties as well. Just recently, Dignity Health, Packard Foundation, Central California Alliance for Health, County Human Services Department, and HUD came together to fund Smart Path, Santa Cruz County’s CES. According to the Patch article, over 20 government agencies and non-profits from various sectors also collaborated on building a new technology that would streamline assessments and referrals for those who need them the most.    

While legislation focused on the housing crisis justifiably receives lots of attention, it’s clear that solving homelessness requires a high level of collaboration amongst many sectors that may not interact consistently otherwise. Not only do local, state and federal governments need to be in sync, but when sectors such mental health and housing do not work together, the results can be costly not only for the homeless but for taxpayers as well.

Sources (in order of appearance)

Total People Experiencing Homelessness on a Given Night in 2017: State Data and Contacts Map. US Interagency Council on Homelessness.[]=1500&fn[]=2900&fn[]=6100&fn[]=10100&fn[]=14100&year=2017&all_types=true&state=CA

California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences. California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Ending Chronic Homelessness Among People with Disabilities. US Interagency Council on Homelessness. Last updated on August 14, 2018.

California’s 2017 Housing Package. California Department of Housing & Community Development.

“Gov. Brown Just Signed 15 Housing Bills. Here’s How They’re Supposed to Help the Affordability Crisis”. Los Angeles Times. September 29, 2017.

Gimme Shelter California Housing Crisis Podcast: Episodes:

-”The new homelessness, from San Diego to the Bay”. March 8, 2018

-”The Mysterious Construction Labor Shortage, with a Developer and a Union Rep”. April 5, 2018

-“What’s in the state Housing Package, the interest group hornets nest and Sen. Scott Wiener.”. 8/20/2017

-”We have a Package!!! (Part I), with Asm. Brian Maienschein 9/20/2017

“Can California’s Housing Problems Be Solved? Bill Changed to Speed Building.” Sacramento Bee. August 15, 2016.

“Is the Shift to Permanent Housing Making L.A.’s Homelessness Problem Even Worse?” Los Angeles Times. August 15, 2016.

HUD's Homeless Assistance Programs: Continuum of Care 101. US Department of Housing & Urban Development. June 2009.

Coordinated Entry Policy Brief. US Department of Housing & Urban Development.

“To Fight Homelessness, Long Beach Turned Meetings Into Action.” CityLab. June 29, 2017.

Press Release: Homeless Count Declines in Long Beach. City of Long Beach.

“Smart Path Coordinated Entry System Will Help Homeless". Patch. April 13, 2018.

"Evaluation of Continuums of Care For Homeless People". U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Office of Policy Development and Research. May 2002.

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