SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Lurking beneath California’s indisputable spoils – the world’s fifth largest economy, a diverse population and overall spectacular weather – is a growing humanitarian crisis that continues to baffle most local and state politicians. The calamity is hardly unique to the Golden State, but over the last decade under a predominantly liberal Legislature, the number of Californians living on the street has grown while the national homelessness rate has dropped.
With new Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom proposing to open up the vault to fund new homeless shelters and drive home construction, lawmakers sought advice on how to best spend the latest batch of taxpayer dollars on the state’s less fortunate.
“We’re here because over the years, between federal government, state government and local governments, we have spent billions of dollars through many, many different policies and programs attempting to address homelessness – and yet homelessness not only continues, it’s intensifying,” said Assemblyman David Chiu Wednesday during a homelessness brainstorming session.
Like Newsom, Chiu is a Democrat from San Francisco. He chairs the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee and on Wednesday summoned a group of advocates and experts to the state Capitol. He and several other lawmakers spent over three hours talking about crafting a better response to what Chiu calls California’s “moral crisis.”
On a national level, homelessness levels have decreased by 13 percent since 2010 while California’s homeless population has spiked by 9 percent. California not only has the most homeless people of any state, 69 percent of those without places to live are unsheltered.
“They live outside in places not meant for human habitation,” said Cynthia Nagendra, a director with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Nagendra testified cities with recent success in cutting homelessness rates have had an “intense focus on housing people as quickly as possible,” and that while temporary shelters are necessary, cities must provide ways for people to gain access to their own homes.
A Brooklyn Law School graduate, Nagendra added the key elements to curing homelessness include accurate homelessness data, rent subsidies, housing development funding and less zoning red tape at the local and state levels.
In his first budget proposal earlier this month, Newsom called for $500 million in one-time spending for local governments to build homeless shelters and expedited environmental reviews for new shelters. He wants the state to consider building emergency shelters on unused state land and says he will soon appoint the state’s first-ever homelessness czar.
Similar to Newsom’s idea, earlier this week a trio of Assembly members introduced a bipartisan bill that would allow the Department of Transportation to lease properties to local municipalities for new emergency shelters, food pantries and parks at a cost of $1 per month.
But some lawmakers doubt spending more will have a clear effect on the crisis.
Assemblyman Steven Choi, R-Irvine, said he’s frustrated with the lack of progress and is worried that counties and cities are misusing the funds doled out by the Legislature.
“Here in Sacramento, we talk about [homelessness and housing shortages] almost daily when we meet in committees; we can’t even solve the capital city’s homelessness situation,” Choi said during the housing and human services joint meeting. “Why can’t we create or try different methods?”
The state’s ordeal is perhaps no more apparent than in its largest city of Los Angeles, where an estimated 52,000 people were homeless in 2018. But the total was actually a bit of good news for the city since it marked a decrease for the first time in four years.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has made ending homelessness one of his top priorities and under his watch, the City Council and voters have raised property taxes and taken out expansive bonds for housing the homeless population.
Christina Miller, deputy mayor of Los Angeles’ homelessness initiatives, told the committee members in Sacramento that “nothing deserves more urgency than solving” the crisis. She says the city and county are committed to removing development barriers, such as parking and zoning requirements, and dedicating parcels of city-owned land for new housing.
“In LA we will persist until every Angeleno on the street today has a safe, warm place to call home,” Miller testified.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva of Orange County said that if other cities don’t begin to follow Los Angeles’ lead and take the crisis seriously, the state will have to play a bigger role.
“We cannot continue to say no [to new housing] when every excuse has run out,” Quirk-Silva said of cities hesitant to build shelters and affordable homes. “We have to build housing. If we don’t build housing, we are not going to be able to address this issue.”