California's Homelessness Crisis: Billions Are Spent Each Year, And The Problem Is Only Getting Worse

California has around 12% of the country's population but approximately 30% of the entire homeless population and approximately 47% of the country's unsheltered homeless. Homelessness is perhaps the most important issue in the state, and has been for decades, despite state and municipal governments pouring billions of dollars into the problem year after year.

How much money have you spent? $12 billion between 2019 and 2021. How much bad can it get? An increase of nearly 7% between 2019 and 2020.

I'm sure you have some queries. What happens to the money? With so many programs and agencies involved in this sector, it's understandably confusing. Why is homelessness becoming more prevalent? Because throwing money at issues without first thinking them through seldom works. Why don't we have a more accurate estimate of the number of homeless persons, who they are, and why they are homeless? Exactly.

We should have answers to these concerns, but we don't, despite the fact that homelessness has been an issue in the state for decades. But, if the Legislative Democrats and the governor are willing to open the door to their Republican colleagues and pursue this issue on a bipartisan basis, we might make some progress this year, because this chronic, inhumane, and astronomically expensive failure will not improve without a true bipartisan effort.

Many Republican state legislators in California's State Senate and Assembly sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom last month urging him to call an extraordinary legislative session to address these and other questions about California homelessness and to develop new approaches to dealing with this issue.

There is no doubt that the state's response to homelessness need a fundamental overhaul. And the Republicans understand this. The Republican letter explains why policies enacted over decades, measures that have likely cost more than $100 billion in spending over the previous 25 years, have failed.

One important element underlying the failure cited by Republican legislators, and one that anybody would notice, is a lack of accountability in the enormous sea of homelessness organizations and services. We would understand these failings if there was accountability. If there was accountability, we would not continue to spend billions of dollars without questioning why we aren't making a difference. If there was accountability, we would have had the equivalent of an emergency legislative session long ago to devise a game plan with a chance of success, rather than double down on chronic failure.

Given that it is Super Bowl week, if California's homelessness policy were a football team, the coaching staff and general manager would have been sacked long ago, and the NFL would have thrown away the team's owner. Restart from scratch. And the implementation of accountability should be the first step in this whole makeover.

Perhaps the most apparent failure of all is that California, the most technologically proficient state in the country, nevertheless lacks an information technology infrastructure capable of compiling and analyzing data in order to make educated policy decisions. We need information to create accountability so that we can better understand the challenges and track our progress.

How reliable is our data? That's not good. On a single night in January, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts a single-point-in-time count of housed and unsheltered persons suffering homelessness. What we do know is that the state's homeless population is very probably bigger than the 160,000 reported to HUD, and may be much larger.

The Republican letter also emphasizes another important reason for our inability to make progress on homelessness. The letter argues vehemently that the state has placed much too much emphasis on the notion that homelessness can be handled by simply building more dwellings. If only it were that easy. The 800-pound monster in the room, according to Republican legislators, is mental health and substance misuse.

This makes dealing with homelessness significantly more challenging and necessitates a thorough rethinking of practically everything we've done in the past. And it is at this point that greater data collection becomes critical for understanding the next phase. Official estimates for people in California's homeless population suffering from mental health difficulties, substance misuse, or both are about 29 percent, but the Los Angeles Times discovered a 67 percent prevalence. The consequences for developing successful policies depend on which of these numbers you choose.

Other studies of homeless persons, including those of distinct homeless communities, suggest that roughly 50 percent or more of homeless people suffer with mental health disorders or drug misuse, with one research finding nearly an 80 percent prevalence of mental health/substance abuse issues. As a result, Republicans are looking for innovative solutions that have the ability to genuinely shift the needle by giving medical care and treatment to individuals suffering from these ailments.

I spoke with one of the letter authors, Senator Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), on Republican proposals for addressing homelessness. Senator Bates has a background as a social worker and hence is well-versed on these topics. "It's sad to watch what's happening to these people," she said. "We must and can do better with investments in data infrastructure and analysis so that we know how and where to make investments that will benefit these individuals and our communities as a whole."

Bates and her colleagues advocate for prioritizing investments in mental health and drug addiction infrastructure, noting that California has one of the largest shortages of inpatient psychiatric capacity and doctors in the country. They also point out that a certain demographic groups, such as veterans, former foster children, and domestic violence victims, have a disproportionately high risk of homelessness.

These findings suggest that programs should target these individuals in order to give assistance before they become homeless. However, there is currently no evidence of specific initiatives aimed at these communities or efforts to increase the availability of preventative programs.

Senator Bates emphasized the necessity for a special parliamentary session to study the numerous dimensions of homelessness under one roof. She also emphasized the Republicans' desire to collaborate on bipartisan solutions.

Governor Newsom's initial reaction? Silence, which is a pity because effective solutions do not follow party lines. And if this silence continues, we will pour billions more into the vast black hole that has become California's homelessness policies—a black hole into which monies enter but most of people in need never exit.

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