Permanent Solutions or Band-Aids: Solving the Decades-Old California Homelessness Crisis


California’s budget last year contained $12 billion, a record number, to address homelessness. Yet, California has the largest homeless population in the nation with, as of January 2020, around 161,500 individuals. California is one of the few states that experienced one of the largest homelessness increases between 2019-2020 with a 6.8% increase, adding over 10,000 more individuals in one year.

How is it that after the state has experienced almost four decades of severe homelessness, lawmakers have not reached a viable solution other than increased spending?

Much of California’s homelessness spending goes toward non-controversial reactive measures. The fact that there are people without housing, living on the streets who need help is largely undebatable. Cities, counties and the state allocate millions toward emergency shelters, projects like Project Roomkey for temporary hotel stays, navigation centers with wraparound services, encampment cleanup programs and behavioral health programs that provide short-term crisis treatment beds and rehabilitation care.

However, all of these solutions fail to see the big picture and are, in many cases, band-aids on larger causes to the problem.

California’s Unaffordability Crisis

One of the big headlines last week in the Orange County Register proclaimed “Orange County median home price tops $1 million for the first time”. The gap between reality and buying your first home continues to widen as 1.6 million California renters spend more than half their income on housing.

Of homeowners with mortgages, 37.8% are cost-burdened and 16.3% are severely cost-burdened with shelter costs exceeding 50% of their overall income. Those numbers are significantly worse among renters: 53.9%, over half of all California renters, are cost-burdened and a devastating 28.4% are severely cost-burdened. The California Budget & Policy Center actually states, “The high cost of housing is one of the primary drivers of California’s high poverty rate — ranked first among the 50 states.”

The gateway to homelessness is wider than ever in California. Lawmakers need to address the state’s affordability crisis and the mounting amount of housing regulations contributing to the exodus from home to street. “No Way Home: The Crisis of Homelessness and How To Fix It With Intelligence and Humanity” by authors Kerry Jackson, Christopher Rufo, Joseph Tartakovsky and Wayne Winegarden offer many viable policy solutions to solving the housing crisis: overhauling CEQA to stimulate building, eliminating rent control, embracing granny flats, reforming zoning laws, and much more.

No Institutional Treatment Options

“The closure of institutions for the mentally ill have produced an ‘invisible asylum’ made up of ‘the street, the jail, and the emergency room’,” writes Rufo in “No Way Home.”

The cruelty and shame around such institutions from decades ago are ingrained in our brains and deter many lawmakers from approaching any version of this option as a solution again.

Earlier this year, Governor Newsom proposed a new homeless plan called the CARE court. CARE courts would create a new branch of county courts that would mandate 12-month personalized plans, including drug stabilization, to the most severely-ill individuals in our communities. This would stand as an alternative to the jail to streets cycle or even conservatorship, a legal strip by the court of an individual’s civil rights under the concern that they cannot care for themselves. However, the CARE courts have already received extensive opposition, including from Cal Voices, an affiliate of Mental Health America:

“Governor Newsom’s proposal to end homelessness is one of the greatest threats to civil liberties in the 21st century,” they said.  “Forcing unhoused individuals into mandated treatment for the ‘crime’ of being homeless is reminiscent of California’s shameful history of institutionalization, sterilization, and forced treatment of those with psychiatric disabilities. The solution to homelessness is permanent, affordable and supportive housing, not criminalizing the most vulnerable among us based on their unhoused status.”

Unfortunately, permanent, affordable and supportive housing will not remedy the immense mental health and drug abuse problems that make it hard for many individuals experiencing homeless from getting out.

These are just two ‘big picture’ areas lawmakers would benefit from turning their attention to. Rather than spending billions of dollars on temporary, reactionary solutions, California needs to make the hard decisions to help these people off the streets and end the homelessness crisis.

Emily Humpal is deputy communications director at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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