It is time for government at all levels to step up and create a statewide system to address homelessness.
By Chuck Washington, Special to CalMatters
Chuck Washington is a member of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and first vice president of the California State Association of Counties.
Homelessness, Gov. Gavin Newsom has said, “[i]f it’s not the first, second and third issue in the state, it’s No. 1, 2, 3 and 4.” The California State Association of Counties wholeheartedly agrees.
We all — the state, counties and cities — have a profound responsibility to change the course of homelessness in California. While the big numbers defining the homeless crisis can be daunting, the individual stories of the successes and failures to help the unhoused compel us to act.
Consider a woman who was living in a riverbed in Riverside County with untreated severe mental illness and an ailing husband. A housing navigator from a local nonprofit helped her find shelter, while county case managers connected her to important social services and federal benefits. Eventually, an “employment pipeline” worker helped her land a job as a county in-home supportive services caregiver.
Or consider a person who has struggled through years of interventions and assistance. They (the individual’s preferred pronoun) also struggled with their sexual identity and emerging bipolar disorder during adolescence, leading to their family kicking them out at age 17.
Being evicted by their family sent them on a roller coaster of housing insecurity, behavioral health instability, substance abuse, major health setbacks and several arrests.
Finally, at age 28, they were linked to a nonprofit HIV social service provider and a housing program, where they remained stable and housed for four years. Unfortunately, disagreement with their landlord eventually led to an eviction notice. While staying in an emergency shelter, they were arrested for domestic violence and remain incarcerated to this day.
County officials have had enough of the fragmented homeless services system, the local finger-pointing and the lack of accountability. We know homelessness is complicated, but we owe it to those suffering on our streets to make major changes.
The association of counties respectfully suggest these four steps:
1. Create a statewide plan. California lacks a comprehensive, holistic, statewide approach to addressing our homelessness crisis. What we are doing now is fragmented and lacks clear lines of accountability for all levels of government, is insufficiently funded and is undertaken without policy tools needed to guide efforts. We need a statewide plan that pulls together all aspects and all levels of government, with clear metrics and accountability.
2. Develop a comprehensive partnership between the state, counties and cities with clear responsibilities. No level of government is solely responsible for the homelessness crisis. We can only achieve meaningful progress by developing a system — from shelter and housing to ongoing services and rehabilitation — that recognizes the integral role of the state and local governments working as partners.
3. Build temporary and permanent housing. California needs a plan to build enough temporary and permanent housing with measurable outcomes, clear responsibility and funding. The plan must include all levels of government. Newsom’s Project Roomkey (which is ending) and Project Homekey are innovative programs, but we need long-term, sustainable programs that encourage housing production and ongoing services in every community.
4. Provide long-term, equitable state investments for treatment and supportive services. Newsom and the Legislature are to be commended for providing more funding to address homelessness than previously in California, but sustained state support is imperative. To continue to make progress, local governments need ongoing and flexible funding to develop housing as well as the wraparound services required to help the unhoused and those living with a mental illness and/or substance-use disorders. The complexity of homelessness also requires equitable statewide funding for key existing county services, such as public guardians, assisted outpatient treatment programs and peer support specialists. Right now, these important services are funded only to the extent that a county can afford to do so without sacrificing other community behavioral health services.
Each day we fail to create a comprehensive homelessness strategy is another day people continue to suffer.