Worse still, meth can exacerbate existing mental illnesses. Addiction and psychological conditions are often inextricably intertwined, and present a complex case for outreach workers or (more often) law enforcement to confront. A disconcerting number of California board-and-care facilities, which have traditionally housed low-income patients with schizophrenia and other severe conditions, have shuttered in recent years.
Many have also blamed California’s conservatorship laws for making it too difficult to compel treatment for people with mental illness or drug addiction living on the street. Civil libertarians and disability rights groups argue that conservatorship —when a court-appointed official manages another person’s life, including medical decisions — should be used as sparingly as possible, as it risks violating civil liberties and is a hollow remedy given the severe shortage of actual treatment options. Under a 1967 state law known as the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, Californians can be held for treatment against their will only if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others, or are determined to be gravely disabled. Other states such as New York do not impose such strict requirements. California is experimenting with allowing three counties to take legal power over mentally ill people living on the street, but only in limited circumstances.
Finally there is the eternal question of cause and effect: The severe stresses people face when they lose shelter and are forced to live exposed on the streets can also wreak havoc on their mental health and lead to substance abuse.
Other Factors That Cause Homelessness
Survivors of domestic violence are among those at high risk of homelessness. One California study found that women reporting an episode of domestic violence were four times more likely to suffer housing instability than other women.
The formerly incarcerated — ineligible for many public housing programs and frequently a target of discrimination in the rental housing market — often take refuge in emergency shelters or on the streets. While comprehensive California data is lacking, one study by a criminal justice reform advocacy group found that people who have been in jail or prison are ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public.
Youth aging out of the foster care system likely constitute a significant share of the more than 11,000 homeless young adults in California. One study found 30% of former foster care children in the Midwest were homeless at least once before age 24. Lacking family support networks and often victims of childhood traumas, about 25% of California’s foster youth transitioning into adulthood live in precarious housing situations.
Emergency Shelters and Permanent Supportive Housing
California has a patchwork of government-provided housing for people experiencing homelessness. While the nomenclature varies from city to city, the two most prevalent and important categories of housing are emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing.
Emergency Shelters: These are any facilities that provide temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness. At their most basic they are a barracks-like arrangement of cots, and provide a bed and a meal. Typically they are operated by publicly funded nonprofit and religious organizations. Many shelters bar residents from staying with partners or pets, and are often viewed by homeless people as dangerous and dirty, even compared to sleeping on the streets. A KPCC investigation of Los Angeles area shelters last year found reports of rats, bedbugs, foul odors and harassment rampant at several shelters.
But while shelter beds frequently go unused in Los Angeles County, where transportation is also a complicating factor, overall the state has a major shortage. Federal funding has shifted away from emergency shelters over the last decade, causing the Bay Area, for example, to lose 1,700 shelter beds since 2011, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.
San Francisco and Los Angeles have tried to reinvent emergency shelters, equipping them with health and social service providers who can help guide residents to more stable housing outcomes. According to city officials more than 50% of the short-term residents of San Francisco’s “navigation centers,” which are tailored to high-needs clients, are ultimately placed in housing. Emergency shelters are generally much cheaper to build than permanent supportive housing, but new projects often run into stringent community opposition.
Permanent Supportive Housing: Homelessness experts agree that emergency shelters are mostly just a Band-Aid — permanent supportive housing is the long-term solution. Usually targeted at the chronically homeless, this offers a highly subsidized apartment paired with support services including psychological counseling, substance abuse rehab and job training. Permanent supportive housing is a pillar of the “housing first” model of ending homelessness: Individuals don’t need to quit drugs or agree to participate in any program to get a permanent roof over their head. Studies show that once placed in permanent supportive housing, residents tend to stay off the streets and out of the hospital and jail, saving taxpayers considerable expense.
One problem: Permanent supportive housing is really expensive to build. In Los Angeles, a recent estimate from the city auditor put the median cost of building one unit at more than $530,000. A new project coming on line in San Jose is estimated to pencil out at roughly $470,000 per unit. The outrageous price tags aren’t just driven by land costs — a shortage of construction labor and prolonged city approval processes are also to blame. Cities including Oakland have recently begun buying and converting single-room occupancy hotels to sidestep prohibitively high new construction costs.
Many California cities have made significant strides in moving people from streets and shelters into safe, stable housing. The Los Angeles Housing Services Authority, buoyed by fresh state and local funds approved by voters, estimated that it was able to place more than 20,000 people experiencing homelessness into housing last year.
So why did L.A. County’s homeless population still grow 12% between 2018 and 2019? Because an estimated 55,000 residents simultaneously lost a place to live, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (another source puts the number closer to 34,000). San Francisco officials say for every homeless person they house, another three fall into homelessness. Much to the chagrin of local politicians trying to prove taxpayer money is being spent effectively, new shelters and supportive housing will have trouble making a dent in visible homelessness unless the spigot is plugged in the first place.
States and local governments across the country (including California) are devoting a rising share of homelessness resources to prevention strategies. These include:
- Eviction counseling and defense: Being evicted — forcibly removed from an apartment — can lead to devastating family housing instability. An eviction record also makes it exceedingly difficult to find rental housing. The Newsom administration bulked up legal services in last year’s budget for low-income tenants facing evictions.
- Emergency rental assistance: New York and Chicago have seen early successes with programs that provide small cash assistance and landlord mediation services to renters struggling to make ends meet. Many California cities have versions of these programs. But targeting emergency aid to those most at risk of homelessness can be difficult. A pilot project from Los Angeles County, UCLA and the University of Chicago hopes to use big data and predictive analytics to better target emergency services to stem homelessness.
- Diversion and rapid re-housing: Quickly connecting individuals who just lost their home with a new one is one of the most cost effective ways of preventing long-term homelessness. In rapid re-housing programs, people teetering on the verge of homelessness or new to a shelter are often provided a security deposit, first month’s rent (or more), and connected to a landlord with an immediate vacancy.
Law Enforcement’s Role
Is it legal for someone to sleep on the sidewalk or other public property?
A landmark federal court decision says yes — if there aren’t shelter beds available. Allowed to stand by the Supreme Court in late 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Martin vs City of Boise held that ticketing, arresting or otherwise criminalizing people living outside violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Several California cities and counties filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to reverse the decision, arguing it would hamstring efforts to clear homeless encampments that posed serious public health and safety risks.
The impact of the Boise decision remains unclear. Police departments and sheriffs still can enforce various “quality of life” ordinances, as well as bans against public defecation and drug use. Many advocates say issuing citations against these behaviors is counterproductive, because people experiencing homelessness have few resources to pay off city fines, and brief incarceration episodes only add to housing instability.
Homelessness puts enormous financial and resource strains on California police and sheriff departments. A recent audit of how Los Angeles spends homelessness dollars found that over 50% went to law enforcement. Several police departments have created units dedicated to interacting with homeless populations, often pairing cops with social workers.
Sweeps also take a toll on unsheltered people, who can lose what little belongings they still have — including sleeping bags, family photographs and medicine.
What is the State Doing About Homelessness?
As homelessness has soared in California, so has state spending on programs to address it, especially in the last two years.
In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown directed $500 million to emergency homelessness funding in response to a plea for help from mayors of the state’s 11 largest cities. That same year, voters passed Prop. 1, a $4 billion bond that funds affordable housing construction. They also passed Prop. 2, a $2 billion bond to fund supportive housing for people with mental illness.
In his first year, Gov. Gavin Newsom upped the ante on homelessness spending. He designated a record $1 billion of his 2019-2020 budget to one-time investments combating homelessness, on top of $1.75 billion to expand California’s affordable housing stock. The budget includes funding to increase welfare grants for low-income families with children, to house mentally ill patients who are homeless or at-risk, and to rapidly rehouse college students who become homeless.
The largest chunk, $650 million, went to emergency aid for California’s cities and counties to build more emergency shelters, medium- and long-term housing and motel conversions. But that money didn’t start flowing immediately: Cities and counties couldn’t apply for the funds until early December.
In an effort to get local governments to cooperate with his homelessness agenda, Newsom also signed a suite of bills that remove regulatory barriers to building more housing for homeless people. Two of the new laws allow developers to bypass certain requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, which neighborhood groups have tried to use to block new housing developments such as a homeless shelter on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
A task force on homelessness Newsom assembled in May is expected to release its recommendations soon. Those will shape how Newsom tackles homelessness in 2020 on a range of issues, from whether he’ll push a legal “right to shelter” to how much money he’ll budget to try to fix the problem.
Counties and cities also shell out significant funds to address homelessness. For example, the Los Angeles city budget for 2018-2019 included $426 million for homeless outreach and services, largely financed by Prop HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure passed by voters in 2016 to fund 10,000 new units of supportive housing over ten years. But there’s no comprehensive statewide accounting of local spending on the problem.
Though California spends big on homelessness, failing to house the growing number of people living on the streets may cost much more. A 2016 study found Santa Clara County spent $520 million a year on the county’s homeless population of 104,206 residents between 2007 and 2012, including the costs of health care, jail and public benefits.
What Are Trump and the Feds Doing?
According to data from the U.S. Treasury Department, California communities received nearly half a billion in federal grant money to fight homelessness in 2018. California couldn’t come close to providing its current levels of emergency shelter, housing vouchers, health services for the indigent and permanent supportive housing without significant assistance from Washington.
Under the Obama administration, federal resources were steered toward a “housing first” model that prioritized permanent supportive housing and allowing people to access housing without preconditions such as sobriety or job training. While the Trump administration has yet to officially deviate from that bipartisan approach, recent personnel decisions and public comments from the president have California homeless advocates and housing officials fearful that a federal “crackdown” on homelessness is looming.