A matter of life or death: California needs a homelessness strategy

A homeless man asleep on the street in San Francisco. (Photo: Izzy Bouchard, via Shutterstock)

Nearly 5,000 unhoused Californians died in 2021, many of them drawing their last breaths alone on our streets. California, which boasts the fifth largest economy in the world, cannot continue to let our neighbors die in public; it’s time for something different.

Too often cities, counties, and the state point fingers at each other because the current approach lacks clear lines of responsibility and accountability. It’s also fragmented, insufficiently funded, and fails to provide the policy tools required to materially impact homelessness.

California’s reliance on a complex patchwork of well-intended programs fails to provide clarity about who is responsible.

We have a unique opportunity – and profound responsibility – to change the course of homelessness, and California’s counties are committed to doing just that.

Yes, the governor, Legislature, and local governments are trying mightily, with the state investing an unprecedented $14 billion into housing and homelessness on top of billions of local investments. While the funding is important, money alone won’t meet this moment.

Why? California’s reliance on a complex patchwork of well-intended programs fails to provide clarity about who is responsible for what and lacks a commitment to successful outcomes. Even with billions of dollars flowing, this is a recipe for failure.

Recent examples of finger-pointing and fragmentation can be found in the proposed settlement between the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights and the City of Los Angeles to compel the City to create enough temporary shelter for 60 percent of its homeless population.

What about the rest of the chronic homeless individuals within city limits, or those seeking more than a temporary shelter bed? According to the short-sighted settlement, those people and their housing are now exclusively the responsibility of someone else – most likely the County.

The same murky logic is baked into the Governor’s new Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Court proposal. Senate Bill 1338 as amended on May 17 by Senator Tom Umberg creates a new court to help a small slice of eligible individuals with psychotic disorders – many of them living without shelter – access a potentially promising approach that includes support, accountability, and some court funding.

Housing is the key, and the reason California lacks a sustainable housing continuum is only partially about funding.

However, the concept imposes a host of new responsibilities on counties and includes a puzzling commitment to county sanctions of up to $1000 a day. And, despite the state’s record-breaking surplus, the governor insists that counties have all the funding they need to undertake the new obligations imposed by CARE Courts. This may force counties to cut back existing services to meet the new CARE Court obligations – one step forward, two steps back.

These examples also continue the pattern of sidestepping the one proven strategy to assist those who are living on our streets, regardless of whether they are mentally ill or which city they live in: housing.

Housing is the key, and the reason California lacks a sustainable housing continuum is only partially about funding. Counties can only do so much – and in fact, counties are accessing the majority of the Governor’s innovative Project Homekey funding to create nearly 50 percent of the state’s total Homekey units, with cities, continuums of care, and tribes creating the remainder, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

Counties are committed to doing even more, but critical factors for successful housing such as siting, transportation, and access to amenities remain clustered in cities, where counties cannot build.

It’s time for all levels of government to get out of our own way. Meaningful progress on homelessness is only achievable through development of a comprehensive system – from shelter and housing to services and rehabilitation – with clear responsibilities for all.

We must muster the courage to move from competition to collaboration. Every day we fail to come together to create a comprehensive strategy is a day where our unhoused neighbors are in peril of dying on the streets. It is time for all levels of government to step up and create a holistic system to address homelessness with clear responsibilities, flexible tools and sustainable funding.

No other state has the opportunity to address the homelessness crisis like California. Counties are ready to roll up our sleeves and make it happen. We invite our state and city partners to join us.

Editor’s Note: Graham Knaus is the Executive Director of the California State Association of Counties (CSAC), the statewide organization representing all 58 counties.

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