July 14, 2024
Despite spending billions, the number of people living on the streets continues to grow.

Since Gavin Newsom began his governorship more than four years ago, the state has spent upwards of $20 billion on efforts to solve – or at least reduce – California’s worst-in-the-nation homelessness crisis.

The spending continues, but the number of people living on the streets, in squalid camps or in ramshackle motorhomes and trailers continues to climb.

That sad fact was underscored recently by a new census of homelessness in Los Angeles County, which has a quarter of the state’s population but nearly half of its homeless people. The study found a 9% rise in the number of homeless people in the county to 75,518, with more than half (46,260) in the city of Los Angeles.

“The homeless count results tell us what we already know – that we have a crisis on our streets, and it’s getting worse,” said Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, CEO of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which conducted the count.

The census not only depicts a worsening problem, but illustrates the difficulty Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass faces as she attempts to make good on her campaign pledge to get people off the city’s streets.

California’s failure, at least so far, to get a handle on its homelessness crisis has made it a target of scornful national and international media attention and a model of what to avoid for other states.

The major underlying cause for the crisis is a lack of housing that’s affordable to Californians on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, exacerbated, among many, by alcohol and drug addictions and mental illnesses.

Those factors indicate that if California is to gain the upper hand on the crisis it must work on all causes simultaneously and somehow forge coordination among the alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies which own slices of the overall problem and often squabble among themselves.

The most obvious of those squabbles has been the running feud between Newsom and local government officials. He accuses the locals of being insufficiently vigorous in implementing programs while they say they need permanent sources of financing rather than the year-to-year appropriations Newsom has offered.

While the homelessness crisis is most evident, or visually jarring, in the state’s major cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, it also afflicts the downtowns of smaller cities and ironically, the area surrounding the state Capitol in downtown Sacramento is a case in point.

A few years ago, the construction of a new basketball arena and the opening of an expanded convention center, plus new hotels, apartment houses and restaurants, indicated that downtown Sacramento had finally arrested its decay.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic was a heavy blow to the region, particularly since tens of thousands of state employees were told to work from home, followed by violent demonstrations in the summer that damaged downtown businesses. As downtown Sacramento was hollowed out, encampments proliferated.

City officials such as Mayor Darrell Steinberg – whom Newsom tapped as a major advisor on homelessness policy – have feuded with their counterparts in county government over who should bear responsibility for anti-homelessness programs.

The newly elected Sacramento County district attorney, Thien Ho, accused city officials of refusing to enforce their own ordinances banning sidewalk encampments and threatened criminal charges to force them to act.

Steinberg and members of the city council, meanwhile, could not agree on where to site approved camping grounds that could persuade street-dwellers to move, finally handing the job of picking sites to their city manager.

Homelessness is an exceedingly difficult issue on its own, but it’s made infinitely worse when public officials can’t cooperate on how to approach it.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

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