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New counts showcase failed homeless policy in the Golden State

Some local leaders and ministries are pushing back

People are living in RVs parked on Forest Lawn Drive in Burbank, California, on June 27. Getty Images/Photo by David McNew

New counts showcase failed homeless policy in the Golden State

Since 2018, California has set aside $20.6 billion t to address housing and homelessness—billions more than any other state. But homelessness has escalated by nearly one-third. Thirty percent of the nation’s homeless reside in the Golden State, including half of all unsheltered people living on the streets.

Homelessness rose 10 percent citywide in Los Angeles last year and 9 percent across Los Angeles County, according to this year’s point-in-time count. Thousands of volunteers with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority fanned out across the county during three nights in January to tally the unsheltered homeless population. “It is clear to me what we have done so far has not worked,” Councilmember Traci Park told the Los Angeles Times. “Despite throwing billions of dollars at this problem over the last number of years, we have failed to address the growth of encampments on the streets.”

A growing number of local leaders across the state are fed up with a strategy that is moving the needle backward. Many are unwilling to question the prevailing orthodoxy of Housing First, a model focused on moving individuals into housing quickly without requiring things like sober living or class attendance. A few determined officials and nonprofit organizations are doing their best to push back against the failed philosophy in a state that refuses to acknowledge it isn’t working.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the California Legislature to investigate what has so far been a slim return on a massive investment. The state’s legislative audit committee will work on a large-scale audit that will likely wrap up in October. “We need to stop spending money on programs that are not working,” said Republican Assemblymember Josh Hoover.

In February, Assemblymember Luz Rivas proposed a bill that would tie homeless funding to “tangible results.” Rivas pointed to a “lack of accountability and inconsistent funding.” The bill is currently bouncing between the housing and appropriation committees.

Michele Steeb, a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said Housing First programs don’t push the men and women they’re serving to get a job or stop using drugs: “There is no accountability to be a part of your healing and recovery.”

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires certain community networks that serve homeless individuals to report their results in their annual funding applications. But HUD doesn’t track whether a person stays housed long-term, and it rarely withdraws funding from an organization, Steeb said.

In 2016, California codified Housing First into law. Federal funding already requires recipients to operate under Housing First guidelines. The rules make it difficult to address the deeper problems behind an individual’s lack of housing, like substance abuse, especially when an individual isn’t seeking help. California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Homekey showcased this approach. Launched in 2020, the initiative provides grants to convert hotels into interim or permanent housing to house as many people as possible.

Counties and cities across the state have conformed to the Housing First mold. Steeb watched this play out in Sacramento, where she directed an 18-month program that helps women and children overcome the root causes of their homelessness. Sacramento County officially subscribed to Housing First in 2017. According to this year’s count, homelessness has skyrocketed by at least 67 percent since then, climbing from 5,500 in 2019 to nearly 9,300 in 2022. “The cake was baked well before COVID,” said Steeb, noting that the pandemic only aggravated an already failed approach.

In initiative after initiative, state and city officials claim that with the right amount of funding, they will change the trajectory. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency over homelessness in December on her first day in office and quickly announced a new program known as Inside Safe. At first, it seemed to be making progress. Social workers and law enforcement cleared a longstanding homeless encampment in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice and began housing more than 90 people.

Most of the people who agreed to pack up their tents moved into temporary motel rooms with no requirements to participate in rehabilitation, job training, or mental health treatment. If deeper issues are not addressed, many could end up back on the street. Others refused help. Bass announced a $250 million expansion of the program in April.

El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells watched this pattern wreak havoc on his Southern California city in San Diego County. Homeless individuals from around the county have filled El Cajon’s hotels as part of San Diego County’s Regional Homeless Assistance Program, which gives homeless people vouchers for hotel rooms. Some of those who took up residence in El Cajon wore ankle monitors or were registered sex offenders. The hotels and surrounding areas quickly became crime scenes, Wells told me earlier this year.

Wells, who is also a clinical psychologist, said the root problem typically is drug and alcohol abuse. “I’m pushing for having the political will to actually address that problem and not just sweep it under the rug,” he said. With Housing First, he said, “you can’t have any kind of program that has any kind of drug and alcohol treatment.”

The mayor is partnering with other like-minded local leaders determined to do the best they can to craft solutions that actually work. Donnie Dee, president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission, worked with the city of Oceanside in north San Diego County to establish a Navigation Center, set to open July 21. The center will eventually be one of four scattered throughout the county. Dee and Wells hope to open one in El Cajon.

The emergency shelters will house homeless individuals for up to 30 days while case managers help them take the next step towards recovery, whether that’s housing, detox, rehabilitation, or employment. “It’s a public-private partnership,” Dee said. The city of Oceanside purchased and renovated the center, while Dee and the San Diego Rescue Mission are raising money to cover the day-to-day operating costs.

“We have to eliminate redundancy, we have to be better coordinated, we have to be on top of our game with referrals. And we’re not doing that,” Dee said. “I think, ultimately, that this will help us change the state of homelessness in San Diego.” Homelessness increased by at least 14 percent in San Diego County in 2022, according to this year’s count.

Since public dollars help fund the project, the Navigation Centers have to operate by Housing First guidelines. Staff can tell individuals they have to go across the street if they want to use drugs, but they can’t turn them away if they show up high. Dee and other staff members can’t require clients to attend Bible study or chapel.

But the Navigation Centers are just the first step. Dee hopes they will funnel more individuals into rehab programs like the Biblically-based 12-month residential program at the San Diego Rescue Mission. The organization doesn’t take any government funding and focuses on complete life transformation. Three hundred beds are set aside exclusively for rehab. Residents are required to get sober and find meaningful employment. Staff members explain the gospel.

Dee said nothing will change if chronically homeless individuals don’t get the rehabilitation they need. “I think that there is a lack of affordable housing, but the homeless situation is much more complex,” he said. “Unless you address the issue of the heart, all you’re really doing is moving people around.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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