By David M. Greenwald
The PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California) this week looked at the growing homeless problem in California—which is unique in part because it is growing far faster than in the rest of the country (six percent from 2020 to 2022) and in part because nearly half of the unsheltered homeless problem resided in California.
Jennifer Paluch and Joseph Herrera, writing for PPIC, noted that the 2022 January PIT (Point in Time) Count was released in December and “offers the first complete data since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020, as many counts were put on pause for health and safety reasons.”
While California continues to dominate the nation’s unsheltered population, drilling a bit deeper is an interesting trend.
The pandemic changed federal and state-level responses “to protect people experiencing homelessness, including offering hotel rooms as temporary housing, moratoriums on evictions, and expanded housing supports.”
While the overall homeless population grew at six percent compared to 0.4 percent in the rest of the country, PPIC found, “A 17% increase in the homeless but sheltered population accounts for almost all of California’s change, while the more visible unsheltered population increased 2%. The rest of the country’s unsheltered population grew faster than California’s (4%), while its sheltered population actually shrank (-2%).”
Those numbers suggest that hotels and other temporary housing measures, along with eviction moratoriums, actually did what they were designed to do—it didn’t stop a growth in homeless population, but it pushed that growth into the more manageable sheltered population.
Writing in CalMatters, Dan Walters this week asked if ending homelessness was “just a matter of money?”
Walters notes, “The politics of homelessness – or rather of spending on homelessness – appear to be entering a very contentious phase.”
The state has spent “nearly $10 billion on battling the social malady, according to a new state report. The money paid for 35 different programs administered by nine different state agencies.”
He argues, “Despite the spending, homelessness numbers have continued to rise and legislators know that the voting public is losing patience.”
“It’s very frustrating for the general public when they hear that in the state, we’re spending billions – and that’s billions with a B – of dollars on homelessness and housing. And yet they don’t feel that they’re seeing enough of an impact in their communities,” Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Burbank Democrat, said.
Newsom for his part, puts blame on local governments, with Walters noting that the Governor said he would be “hard-pressed to make a case to the Legislature to provide them $1 more” if local officials don’t accelerate homelessness responses.
Walters writes “one might wonder, if successfully battling homelessness is a matter of money, how much would it take?”
Walters then cites the report that we have—the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) and the California Housing Partnership released a report projecting that “California could end homelessness by 2035 were it to spend $8.1 billion a year until then – the vast majority of it for housing.”
Writes Walters, “That totals more than $100 billion, a big number that does not include ancillary services such as food, medical care and treatment for mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism. However, it might be a bargain if, in fact, it worked.”
While I find this all interesting, it becomes a bit frustrating as well.
After all, we have begun the year in 2023 with one local fight after another over housing. The homeless problem in California is exacerbated by the high cost of housing that puts people who are at risk for homelessness over the top.
The massive numbers of the unsheltered homeless population in California is attributable to the lack of shelter and temporary housing, not to mention the need for permanent supportive housing.
The CSH’s analysis found, “The total unmet housing need for households experiencing and expected to experience homelessness over the next 12 years is 225,053 units.”
A huge cause of this is the dramatic rent increases across California. CSH cites a Zillow study that found “communities that spend an average of more than 32 percent of their incomes for rent have higher rates of homelessness.”
And it doesn’t take much: “Just a two percent increase in housing unaffordability in Los Angeles, the report found, results in over 4,200 additional renters falling into homelessness.”
The numbers that were seen in California bear this out.
For instance, CSH cites, in 2021 “Los Angeles renters saw their rent increase by 10 percent, San Diego renters by 21 percent, and Fresno renters by 13 percent.”
They found, “Already, the number of California households with extremely low incomes (making less than 30 percent of the median income in their community) totals about 1.1 million; 79 percent of these renters are paying more than half of their incomes on rent.”
It’s not rocket science. Now you add in the fact that 45 percent of people utilizing homeless services have a disability, and the high rates of substance use disorder and mental illness, and you have a good glimpse of the problem.
The data from PPIC and the study from CSH also point to some solutions to that problem, but it all starts with funding, supportive housing, and reducing the housing crisis.
We have a number and a roadmap. Are we willing to actually address it?