California spends billions of taxpayer money each year battling homelessness but has nothing to show for it, with experts warning that hundreds may perish before enough housing is secured.
Hundreds of housing spaces remain unfilled in San Francisco, as efforts to connect homeless persons with hotel rooms and other types of temporary housing have been hampered by the Covid-19 outbreak.
According to a municipal audit issued Feb. 23, a $1.2 billion bond measure in Los Angeles is falling short of its promise to produce up to 10,000 housing units for homeless individuals over a decade as construction prices continue to rise and projects linger on.
“It’s like the walking dead out here,” LaJuana Johnson, who lives in a tent on downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, explained. “They are only awaiting judgment.”
Piecemeal social services and rising house construction prices have stymied efforts when the state has committed about $2 billion to homelessness initiatives, including behavioral health housing and encampment clearance.
Complicating matters further is a decentralized fundraising mechanism that makes tracking how money is spent difficult. A 2021 state audit chastised the California Interagency Council on Homelessness for failing to track expenditures throughout the state, a primary basis for the council’s establishment in 2017.
Without a coordinated statewide effort to address the public health crisis, each city and county must fend for itself in securing funding from a patchwork of local, state, and federal sources and then attempting to approve acceptable programs to all stakeholders — providers, politicians, and county officials.
“We have a really difficult system, and we’re attempting to make it work,” said Molly Rysman, chief program officer of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which organizes funding and manages housing and social services across the enormous Los Angeles County.
“We do not have a well-oiled mechanism, and this has developed into a true problem in terms of housing unhoused persons in this county.”
In 2020, the latest year a count was completed due to Covid-19, California had around 161,548 homeless residents. Service providers anticipate an even larger number this year due to pandemic-related unemployment and skyrocketing housing expenses.
Gov. Gavin Newsom stated in January that the state would commit a record $14 billion over several years to combating homelessness in major cities and rural areas.
Additionally, the state distributed $50 million in funds to several towns and counties, including Santa Cruz and Orange counties, to house 1,400 individuals living in homeless camps last month.
If the Legislature approves Newsom’s budget in June, the figure will rise to $500 million.
Millions more have been allocated to local towns and counties through the state’s Roomkey and Home key programs, which, according to the governor’s office, have given shelter to 58,000 individuals since 2020.
“I don’t want to see any more people dying in the streets under the guise of compassion,” he declared in January, announcing his $286.4 billion budget proposal. “There is nothing humane about someone dying on the street or tripping over someone on the sidewalks or streets.”
‘Several thousand homeless people will perish.’
Federal officials dubbed Los Angeles the “homeless capital” of the country in 1984, and the city has lived up to that moniker ever since. Over 66,000 homeless persons live in the county of over ten million people, the bulk of them live in Los Angeles.
Voters, stunned and disturbed by the sight of people living in tents near upscale houses, parks, and beneath motorways, opted to tax themselves in 2017. Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax, has generated $1.7 billion in revenue to date, or around $425 million each year, according to the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative, which administers the monies and develops methods to end homelessness.
The funds are used to fund social services, rental subsidies, and the construction of new dwellings.
According to county figures since the measure’s passage, Los Angeles County has permanently sheltered around 78,000 individuals and placed almost 105,000 in temporary housing.
However, Cheri Todoroff, executive director of the county’s homeless effort, warned that demand surpassed supply.
San Francisco is attempting to satisfy its housing needs.
Mayor London Breed of San Francisco established a target of building at least 6,000 beds in housing units and shelters during the next two years in July 2020.
According to official figures, the city had accommodated more than 3,700 individuals as of Jan. 31 and is on schedule to reach its target of acquiring 1,500 permanent supportive housing units that would connect residents with resources.
However, the city acknowledged that almost 900 vacancies in permanent supportive housing remained vacant as of Feb. 22, and around 1,633 homeless persons authorized for housing were still awaiting placement.
The epidemic hindered the system’s progress because providers prioritized housing for those at high risk of dying from Covid, said Emily Cohen, deputy director of communications and legislative relations for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
“We expected to be farther along with our aims, but also with the epidemic,” she explained.
Since the epidemic began, she noted that San Francisco has offered emergency shelter to about 3,000 homeless individuals and put over 900 in permanent homes, including almost 200 in January.
Nonetheless, San Francisco, like Los Angeles, has a scarcity of affordable housing stock available to everyone, much alone those who have already experienced homelessness.
“While we are making amazing strides in certain areas, for the ordinary citizen, homelessness remains highly visible and drives the discourse,” Cohen said. “Even though we’re making significant progress, it still feels like we’re in a situation of crisis.”