Lawmakers seek more coordinated approach to housing the homeless

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Many homelessness experts and lawmakers believe that a more coordinated approach to information sharing and outreach is needed to ensure that those in need of services receive the support and assistance they require.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s latest updated budget report, California has allocated an estimated $20.6 billion toward addressing homelessness since the budget year 2018-2019.

Despite these efforts, an estimated 170,000 individuals are homeless, and about 115,00 are unsheltered, leading to the largest increase of homeless individuals across the nation between 2020-2022, according to an annual AHAR report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Dec. 2022

Some lawmakers have called forth a probe into the efficacy of California’s homeless programs, with the California State Auditor slated to provide more insight later this year.

Against the backdrop of this closer examination, some lawmakers are seeking changes within the California Interagency Council on Homelessness, the state’s central council which works to align and coordinate the state’s department and agencies working towards ending homelessness.

“We could still be what I would call uncentralized, where each entity can provide what they need done, but they need to be coordinated much better than they have before,” says Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer Sr.  (D-Los Angeles), who authored AB 86 in hopes of streamlining the statewide homelessness programs through establishing a state coordinator’s office.

In a statement, Jones-Sawyer said the lack of consistency in these programs includes not even agreeing on the very definition of what constitutes homelessness.

“In one city or county, sleeping in your car can be viewed as being sheltered, disqualifying you from some or all homelessness programs, while in others, that is homeless. This is one example of the challenges a Statewide Homelessness Coordinator would have to tackle,” he says.

According to Jones-Sawyer, the Statewide Homelessness Coordinator would standardize protocols and operations to assist cities and counties with state funding and program assistance. Other duties would include improving governmental efficiencies and communications by coordinating homelessness programs, services, data, and policies between federal, state, and local agencies.

Other lawmakers are looking to follow suit.

State Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones (R-San Diego) has introduced SB 842, intended to improve assistance for homeless individuals facing cognitive impairments or developmental disabilities by adding a Director of Development Services to the California Interagency Council on Homelessness, bringing valuable expertise and a unique perspective to address the specific needs of this vulnerable population.

“In one city or county, sleeping in your car can be viewed as being sheltered, disqualifying you from some or all homelessness programs, while in others, that is homeless.”

Jones says having a dedicated representative on the council will help ensure that support is provided concurrently for needs arising from both homelessness and cognitive impairments or developmental disabilities.

“Having this person on the council means that both of those services can now be available at the same time for that individual or group of people that need the additional help,” says Jones.

Assemblymember Phillip Ting (D- San Francisco) has also introduced AB 1413, proposing to transfer to offload a portion of administrative duties currently under the Interagency Council to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

And in terms of data sharing and homeless response systems, researchers and advocates say there are gaps to be further assessed and improved upon.

Mari Castaldi, a senior legislative advocate for Housing California, an organization that focuses on homelessness and affordable housing, says the key to accessing permanent or even temporary housing for those experiencing homelessness is to get integrated into a coordinated system. But that can be a complicated process for the person in need.

“That process usually looks like answering a bajillion questions about your circumstances and what brought you into homelessness, all of which is fed into a centralized system,” she says.

Castaldi says these individuals can then wait for months or even years from the time they first answer the questionnaire to when they are matched with housing through the Homeless Data Integration System, which aggregates data collected from homeless service providers about its local homeless population.

The data had been initially collected by a local service provider to meet federal standards for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires them to be part of another data entry system called the Homeless Management Information System. That system asks providers to assess needs according to factors such as vulnerability risks.

Some localities and agencies, however, used a risk assessment tool known as VI-SPDAT, Vulnerability Index – Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, to determine the level of vulnerability of each homeless person and then provide services or resources to the most vulnerable individuals for the system. But the vulnerability index is also under scrutiny.

“That algorithm, I think, is under some fire right now because folks are worried that it creates racially inequitable outcomes,” says Castaldi.

While providers have been shifting away from using the algorithm exclusively and adopting other methods, HMIS had recently updated its standards to circumvent some of these racially inequitable outcomes as well.

“I think [what] this does is help track who’s gotten services to make sure that the way that people are prioritizing services isn’t caught having some sort of discriminating effect,” says Carrie Sager, Marin County’s Health and Human Services’ Senior Homelessness Program Coordinator.

She says some communities might have prioritized individuals based on their contact with medical services, but certain populations, such as undocumented individuals, may be hesitant to engage due to their immigration status. Additionally, communities of color may have had negative experiences with the medical system, leading to distrust and lower voluntary engagement.

“If you’re prioritizing people based on their engagement with the medical system, then you could be inadvertently prioritizing some populations over others,” Sager says. “Having these really accurate demographics is really important for making sure that we’re serving people equitably in our system.”

Castaldi says this complexity can lead people to wait for months or even years from the time that they first answer questions.

“This can be particularly challenging for those who are unstable and not in one place, losing contact and missing opportunities to access available resources,” she says. “But that’s sort of how it works now, at the state level and national level, even though each individual community’s process might look slightly different.”

Sarah Chung is an intern with Capitol Weekly

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