California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently concluded a five-day road show in which he illustrated, for his pandemic-weary constituents, how he plans to distribute an unprecedented $75 billion state budget surplus, plus an additional $27 billion in federal stimulus funds.
Flanked by legislative leaders in Oakland, Newsom presented a $12 billon package he said would house an additional 46,000 homeless individuals in renovated hotels and “eliminate family homelessness within five years.”
I read Newsom’s plan with interest, informed by 13 years of building and running northern California’s largest and most effective program for homeless women and children, Saint John’s Program for Real Change.
While more housing for the homeless is needed, Newsom’s plan falls depressingly short of what is needed to address the state’s homelessness crisis. Policy change is required.
In 2016, California deployed a one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness—Housing First– that treats all homeless with the same broad brush. A single male with severe mental illness receives the same ‘treatment plan’ as does a single mother with children. The therapeutic regimen for both is a housing unit, period, the end.
What’s more, the housing proposed strictly prohibits the requirement of sobriety, the connection of services to housing to help the homeless address the underlying causes of their homelessness… including engagement in work training programs.
Under Housing First’s rule, California has experienced a 37% increase in homelessness. At the Federal level, where it was rolled out in 2013 as a one-size-fits-all approach, the country experienced over a 16% increase, despite a 200% increase in funding and a relatively robust economy.
No amount of money will fix this crisis, nor will it fix the governor’s track record on homelessness thus far.
Despite his mayoral promise to end homelessness, Newsom’s “Care not Cash” program resulted in a $1.5 billion price tag and no reduction in the number of homeless San Franciscans.
Newly-released 2020 HUD data tells a similar story, citing a 7% increase in homelessness under Governor Newsom’s leadership despite doubling spending over the year prior.
Undeterred by those two strikes, the governor devoted his 2020 State of the State to homelessness saying, “In the past two years, $1.5 billion has been allocated to help local governments solve homelessness. […] But the problem has gotten worse.”
Despite the explosion of homelessness across the state, the topic was painstakingly absent from his 2021 address… except to tout his “mixed result at best” Project Roomkey program to house the homeless during the pandemic.
One month later, in February 2021, the State Auditor released her report on the governor’s approach to homelessness saying, “The State’s uncoordinated approach to addressing homelessness has hampered the effectiveness of its efforts.” (This is on top of a 2019 equally blistering audit in which she stated that California inadequately identifies and serves youth experiencing homelessness.)
Strike three? Not in this case…
The governor’s plan to end family homelessness in five years is even more inadequate… though symptomatic of the state’s pattern of “solving” problems by ignoring their underlying causes.
At Saint John’s, approximately 78% of the women we serve struggle with addiction; approximately 70% with domestic violence and mental illness; approximately 60% with criminal histories; and approximately 50% are without a high school diploma. Their typical ACES score is between 4-9, indicating significant levels of trauma. The governor’s plan supposes that $3.5 billion in housing units and rental subsidies will end their homelessness.
In 13 years of working with single-mother-led families— more than 70% of the homeless family population—there are thousands of women who will join me in attesting that a housing unit or a subsidy, in and of themselves, would not have supported them to overcome the challenges that led to their homelessness… the challenges that would have prevented them from living full lives today.
A $12 billion investment to address homelessness is a once in a century opportunity for the Golden State. The magnitude of this surplus won’t be seen again in a generation, maybe ever. Instead of continuing to address it in an approach that has failed the state and the nation, this opportunity should propel an overhaul of California’s policy approach to homelessness.
Otherwise, we will have the same experience the residents of San Francisco had in the latter part of the 2000’s, billions out the door, press conferences and accolades galore but many more homeless on the streets.