California must not repeat old mistakes as it seeks new ways to end homelessness

By Chris Martin and Sharon Rapport, Special to CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom is right when he says: “Shelter solves sleep. Housing solves homelessness.” 

Shelters are short-term responses, not the long-term solution to California’s homelessness crises. That’s why our policies and resources should focus on the right to housing, not a right to shelter.

A right to shelter is akin to treating symptoms without curing the disease. It ignores that the homelessness crisis is rooted in a decades-long failure to plan, invest, and sustain affordable housing, especially for people in deep poverty. Diverting investments in permanent affordable housing toward a mandate for shelter beds will lead us to repeat past mistakes.

True, California recently invested in affordable and supportive housing, and the number of people who are homeless did rise. But the reason is not that these investments are wrong. Rather, the scale of investment has been inadequate. Adding to the problem, inequitable zoning and red tape have thwarted affordable housing, especially for people experiencing homelessness.

The affordable housing crisis is daunting. Our supply is about 4 million units short of demand, and more than 80% of units are unaffordable or unavailable for Californians living with extremely low income, defined as less than 30% of the area median income.

Another 1 million households spend more than 50% of their income on rent, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness when their rent goes up or a large bill comes due.

Too many Californians encounter these difficulties every day. People of color, particularly African-Americans, are at the highest risk of homelessness.

The few low-cost options Californians used to be able to rent, such as single room occupancy rooms, evaporated long ago as these were converted to high-end rentals.

Plain and simple, our shortage of housing led to heightened competition, unaffordable rent, and, more than any other cause, homelessness. 

One compelling fact from a report issued by the California Housing Partnership is that growth in rental apartment supply in our state has not kept pace with renter demand since the Great Recession.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, when homelessness became a national crisis, our communities built emergency shelters. This strategy did nothing to stem the tide of people entering homelessness.

Those who entered shelters had to adhere to rules about sobriety and other behaviors before advancing to temporary housing. Most returned to the streets, leading to large numbers of Californians cycling between shelters and homelessness.

The untold dollars spent on these failed shelters and policies would have been better invested in permanent housing.

Early this century, the U.S. government formally adopted “housing first” policy, intended to move people off the street and into homes.

By offering subsidized housing with voluntary services, we found that even people with long-time homelessness and severe disabling conditions could be housed successfully, and permanently. Housing first has resulted in decreased homelessness nationally.

California’s success with housing first was tempered because our real estate boom pushed poor families out of desirable rental markets. Compounding the crisis, the discontinuation of redevelopment resources took away funds that could have been used for affordable housing to meet the growing need.

It was one step forward and two steps back.

Los Angeles and some other communities have moved people once homeless into permanent housing. But because of bad decisions made decades ago, L.A. is among the cities facing an inflow entering homelessness people.

We have failed to learn the most important lesson from the past because we continue to underfund affordable housing.

To end homelessness, we cannot manage it in shelters. We must create affordable housing opportunities through subsidies and construction.

Seeing people experiencing homelessness is frustrating, especially when we perceive resources are not making a difference. 

But our strategy should not be to return to failed policies. Instead, we must turn to strategies that are proven: providing people with affordable housing opportunities and services at a scale that will change the trajectory. By doing so, we would ensure our less than enviable history addressing homelessness remains well in the past.

Chris Martin is legislative advocate for Housing California, [email protected]. Sharon Rapport is associate director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, [email protected] They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Latest in Commentary

photo illustration of a young person smoking.

Commentary

Every teenager knows vaping is an epidemic. Here’s what the Legislature can do about it

Commentary

A slow-motion disaster

Color image of some people voting in some polling booths at a voting station.

Commentary

An election reform: Let voters make clear which candidates they truly dislike

The California State Capitol on December 3, 2018 in Sacramento, California.

Commentary

Is recession on our horizon?

The RifleGear store in Fountain Valley, CA IMAGE BY Mitch Barrie, Creative Commons

Commentary

To prevent mass shootings, California should rely on science, not rhetoric