California can solve homelessness. Lawmakers have the solutions in front of them

This story appeared on Calmatters

The belongings of an unhoused person by the Los Angeles River in Long Beach on Feb. 18, 2023. Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

In summary

A December report concluded that California can solve homelessness through investments of $8.1 billion in housing, shelter and supportive services every year for the next 12 years. The price tag is high, but advocates argue that the status quo will be more expensive.

Guest Commentary written by

Sharon Rapport

Sharon Rapport

Sharon Rapport is the California state policy director at the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Fourteen years ago, Vikki Vickers was diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually became homeless. She lived for years outside the Santa Monica Library until an outreach worker connected her with medical care at the Venice Family Clinic. That led to voluntary mental health treatment and a bed in an emergency shelter. 

Eight months later, Vickers moved into supportive housing at the Downtown Women’s Center. The stability of a roof over her head and supportive services allowed her to work. She is now a case manager helping others, and has lived stably in her own apartment without government subsidies for the past two years.

Stories like hers remind us that solving homelessness in our state is possible. The California Homeless Housing Needs Assessment in December concluded that California can solve homelessness through investments of $8.1 billion in housing, shelter and supportive services every year for the next 12 years.

Through a combination of extensive research, focus groups led by people with lived experience, and conversations with 125 people working in the field, the analysis found that California needs to build 112,527 affordable homes at a cost of $5.7 billion per year. 

The state also needs to help subsidize rent in 225,053 homes for $1.8 billion a year. And supportive services, like case management and employment assistance, would provide an essential foundation for 62,966 households with disabilities to heal and stay housed, with an average outlay of $488 million per year.

And finally, California needs an additional 32,235 interim interventions, such as shelters, to help people stay safe while they wait for housing, at a total cost of $630 million. 

Homelessness in California is a systemic issue rooted in decades of inadequate investment in deeply affordable housing. It requires a systemic response that provides ongoing funding at scale.

State investment in combating homelessness increased dramatically, spurred in part by our urgent, collective response to COVID-19. Those efforts expand on local initiatives supported by voters, such as Los Angeles’ Proposition HHH. Until recently, California had never examined its spending, or the scale of investment needed before the assessment. 

Numerous examples demonstrate the value of setting clear goals based on data and investing ongoing funding in housing. The federal government reduced homelessness among veterans by 55% from 2010 to 2022. Houston reduced homelessness by upwards of 63%. Finland cut homelessness by 40% and is projected to eliminate homelessness entirely by 2027.

California can set an example of progress, but only with an honest analysis of the reality it faces. 

An $8.1 billion price tag is strikingly high at first glance, but it amounts to just 2.7% of California’s state budget. 

The status quo is more expensive. One study in Orange County estimated that the average annual cost of municipal, health, justice system and other services for people experiencing homelessness totaled $45,000 per person. Even these costs leave out the state’s disproportionate spending on Medi-Cal, prisons or state hospitals, let alone the immeasurable cost for people caught in the trauma of experiencing homelessness.

California is not starting from zero, either. Expected state and federal resources have already committed $1.2 billion to create housing, leaving lawmakers to allocate $6.9 billion on average each year.

The data California leaders need to make informed decisions is available now. With continued investment, there can be more success stories like Vickers closing a difficult chapter of history for good.

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