UCSF study unpacks root causes of California’s homelessness crisis

This story appeared on Calmatters

A person walks by a homeless encampment in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters/CatchLight Local

In summary

California has the nation’s worst homelessness crisis. A new UCSF study revealed how so many Californians lost shelter and what should be done about it.

The timing could not have been better.

A massive UC San Francisco study of California’s worst-in-the-nation homelessness crisis was released Tuesday as Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders were negotiating details of a new state budget, with homelessness spending as one of the knottiest issues.

The study bolsters previous research which concluded that California’s chronic shortage of housing, which imposes crushing costs on low-income families, lies at the heart of the crisis.

About a third of California’s 40 million people live in poverty or near-poverty, United Ways of California recently reported. Sudden illness, an accident, a layoff or an unexpected car repair bill can easily lead to unpaid rent, eviction and a lack of shelter.

Homelessness, the UCSF study found, often leads to – or exacerbates – alcohol or drug dependence, mental health problems and violence, indicating that its victims need more than just roofs over their heads.

“Something goes wrong, and then everything else falls apart,” the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Margot Kushel, the director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at UCSF, told the New York Times. “Everything in their life gets worse when they lose their housing: their health, their mental health, their substance use.

“This is a problem of this toxic combination of deep poverty and high housing costs,” Kushel added. “We’re a state, like every state in this country, that has a lot of very poor people, and we just don’t have the housing for them.”

The study recommends a wide array of services and projects to help those experiencing chronic homelessness to get off the streets and protect others from the same fate.

It would seem to bolster the demands of city and county officials not only for additional billions of dollars to help homeless Californians escape their plight, but for a multi-year state commitment to provide continuity.

While Newsom has been willing to provide local governments with some funds, he’s been highly critical of their homelessness efforts and so far unwilling to make long-term commitments.

That conflict was evident when the state seemingly had oodles of money, and has become even sharper now that Newsom and legislators must contend with deficits that could continue for the remainder of Newsom’s governorship.

Interestingly, the Benioff study was requested by Dr. Mark Ghaly, Newsom’s secretary of health and human services, who said, in a statement, “this study reinforces the importance of comprehensive and integrated supports,” which is what local officials advocate in their demands for additional state aid.

The state plays only a tangential role in providing housing and social, medical, addiction and mental health services to those in squalid encampments that have become unwanted California symbols and fodder for political and media critics.

City governments are the main overseers of housing construction and joust with the state incessantly over zoning, building permits and other hurdles for projects to house low-income families and individuals – the ones most in peril of becoming homeless.

Meanwhile, county officials provide welfare, medical and mental health services with local, state and federal funds and often squabble with their city counterparts over how those programs are sited and administered in urban centers.

The Benioff study tells us that contrary to popular belief, those lacking shelter are overwhelmingly Californians, not migrants from other states, who largely remained in their communities after falling on hard times.

California’s crisis will not be resolved without the “comprehensive and integrated” approach Ghaly advocates and that means state, county and municipal officialdom must set aside fingerpointing and blame-shifting to work cooperatively. Otherwise, we’ll just waste billions of more dollars and the crisis will continue to worsen.

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