On Homelessness: Unfinished Business

Just last week the California Legislature, in close consultation with Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., fashioned a historic sixth on-time and structurally balanced state budget. There were roughly one half-dozen unresolved policy challenges in this budget. The matters are universally recognized as urgent (transportation, climate change, etc.) that have yet to find broad legislative agreement on solutions. Then there was another category of unfinished business. It went unresolved in this year's budget despite becoming a growing challenge with ever-expanding support for solutions. The issue is homelessness.

Like education, public safety, waste disposal, and transportation, homelessness is typically a societal issue that requires a broad set of solutions led by government. State government, in particular, is well-positioned to make homeless relief a priority. States typically set the rules of the game for housing, urban growth, and land use. Thus, the housing policy decisions and tools afforded to local governments are largely state-delegated.

California has suffered housing shortages and in-affordability since the war effort doubled the state's population (driven by the defense industry and military jobs). The difference between the post-World War II era and now is that the result of income inequality, poor distribution of employment, nimby-ism, and an insufficient mental healthcare delivery system has given the Golden State the dubious distinction of being the face of homelessness in America.

One-hundred, nineteen-thousand persons find themselves without shelter on any given night in California. Los Angeles County alone accounts for some nearly forty-seven thousand persons. Nearly nine-thousand in San Diego, seven-thousand in the City and County of San Francisco, seven-thousand in Santa Clara County, three-thousand in Sonoma, three-thousand in Sacramento, three-thousand in the Salinas Valley, eighteen-hundred in Fresno & Madera Counties and many more find themselves homeless across the great Golden State from the Redwoods to the Sierras, from the Imperial Valley to the Central Coast.

California's share of the nation's homeless population stands at twenty-two percent, while the state's overall share of the national population is roughly eleven percent. There are also a large proportion of homeless individuals without shelter in California.

These conditions constitute a crisis. Local government, with its municipal land use powers and responsibility for indigent services at the county level, must often face a growing homeless population without much assistance from other government partners.

State government in California makes a minimal investment in the prevention of homelessness. The State of California would do well to alter this pattern. The rapid growth of individuals without housing has accelerated in an improving economy. Bad weather or an economic downturn will multiply the number of individuals who face homelessness.

Crises demand decisive action. The Counties of Los Angeles (which declared its own State of Emergency in August 2015), San Francisco, and the City of Los Angeles have requested a Gubernatorial Declaration of Emergency with funding to begin alleviating homelessness. Additionally, these local governments are requesting a commitment from the Brown Administration and the California Legislature to begin crafting a permanent solution to end homelessness in the Golden State.

The County of Los Angeles has launched a Change.org petition requesting Governor Brown to declare a State of Emergency on homelessness (https://www.change.org/p/declare-homelessness-emergency-in-california?source_location=search_index&algorithm=promoted&grid_position=3).

This petition appears to be gaining one-thousand signatures per-day because of the intense public desire to see real action and funding directed towards homelessness. The voting electorate of Los Angeles County has been polled three times on quality of life issues and for the first time ever, each poll showed homelessness trending in public consciousness. Angelenos have also been open to raising taxes, yes taxes, to pay for homeless services.

Separately, African American voters were polled statewide by the African American Civic Engagement Project, a project of Community Partners and the African American Voter Registration, Education, and Participation political action committee. Homelessness was a near universal top public policy priority.
The time to act is now.

Jesus said the poor will always be with us. That does not mean that those who are suffering from mental illness, physical disability, developmental delay, or low economic position should be forced to live on the streets. To do nothing would be to undermine the narrative of an ascendant California. We can do much better.

An emergency declaration by Governor Brown, with statewide one-time monies to begin housing the homeless with support services, will do a great deal to advance broad solutions. This beginning will open a dialogue with various public and private stakeholders to find rational and sustainable solutions to California's most pressing human services challenge.