In summary

This budget season, the Newsom administration and the Legislature must allocate steady — not temporary — funding for rental assistance and the creation of permanent, supportive housing.

By Mike Herald, Special to CalMatters

Mike Herald is the director of policy advocacy at the Western Center on Law & Poverty.

Twenty years have passed since voters approved  a $2.1 billion bond to address homelessness, yet it remains a humanitarian crisis with no foreseeable end. Homeless encampments abound, and another governor is proposing a solution that does not address the root cause. The problem is clear — people cannot afford the rents in California — and so is the answer.

Californians need more housing, and the state needs to help pay for it. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom seeks reelection as the public fumes over homelessness and state leaders scramble to react. He proposed a CARE Court to address the number of people living on the street who have severe mental health challenges. What isn’t proposed is what is needed: help finding and the ability to stay in affordable housing.

The state needs to help people secure a place to live when they are released from government custody (jail, prison, mental hospitals, detention). Any proposal that doesn’t include ongoing funding and implementation for rental assistance simply won’t work. 

In a state with living costs as high as California’s, we must use the $100 billion surplus born of enormous wealth gains among the state’s top earners to stop this stain on California. We must invest where help is needed most. We must guarantee ongoing rental assistance to help people who can’t afford rent. 

There have been numerous attempts by housing and human service advocates and counties to fund rental assistance programs. Invariably, such programs underperform because the state places time limits on rental assistance. If you are homeless and need to find a place to live, for example, the state limits rental assistance to six months. California provides cash assistance when someone’s Supplemental Security Income application is pending, but the moment he or she becomes eligible, the state cuts off the money.

Decisions to place time limits on rental assistance are handed down from California’s Department of Finance, which has clung to the myth that temporary rental assistance motivates people to earn more money. There is zero empirical evidence for that policy assertion.

So state policy continues to be: Let the problem persist even as the solution lies in front of us, because the state doesn’t want to pay for it.

In 2002, amid similar public pressure to address homelessness, then-Gov. Gray Davis appointed me to California’s Department of Housing and Community Development, where I worked with his staff to help develop a homelessness plan. We met with people from around the state and uncovered two key findings:

  1. Most people were unhoused because they did not have enough income to pay rent. 
  2. Almost every unhoused person was known to us. They had been in our foster care system, our county hospitals, our jails, our state mental hospitals, our Supplemental Security Income program, our mental health system, or our prisons — often in combination. 

Those findings hold true in California today, but the situation is worse because of recession, pandemic, stagnant wages and rising costs of living — and the state’s failure to make ongoing investments to address the issues identified in 2002.

This budget season, the Newsom administration and the Legislature must allocate steady funding — not temporary funding — for rental assistance and the creation of permanent, supportive housing. Otherwise, we will be here again, or even worse off, 20 years from now.

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