My turn: Finally, California seems determined to end homelessness

By Lisa Hershey, Special to CALmatters

The opposite of homelessness is obvious: having a home.

When we picture a home, that picture comes with basic necessities: a bed and bathroom, a place to store food, a place of privacy for school work and family time. We picture that home in a community that provides access to health and child care, good jobs, transportation and schools.

So when we at Housing California learned that 9,000 school-aged children are homeless in Monterey County right now, we knew that means they don’t have safe, stable places to live. These 9,000 children are living with their families on streets and in shelters; dilapidated trailers and garages; and overcrowded rooms, closets and hallways.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom said in his inauguration speech and repeated in his budget press conference, the fact that 130,000 of our fellow Californians don’t have a home should keep all of us up at night.

The governor also called out the right solution: “Housing-first,” and the need for permanent housing.

But he proposed a shelter-focused strategy. If California is to make progress for our homeless population, we must take a housing-first approach.

Housing-first is a model that seeks to ensure people experiencing homelessness are first and foremost placed into a home. It could be an apartment, a house, co-op, or other habitable rental unit, with access to services to help them stay housed if they need them.

We at Housing California support housing-first because it is an evidence-based, proven solution to end homelessness.

Though the most important step is getting homes for people who need them, we understand that not enough homes are available.

In Monterey County, several thousand low-income homes are needed for those 9,000 children and their families. Yet even as cities and counties find locations for shelters and navigation centers, they need permanent housing for every individual walking through those temporary doors.

Newsom is headed in the right direction with his proposals to invest millions more into affordable housing, revamp the way we plan for housing at all income levels, set aside state-owned land for affordable housing, fast-track supportive housing developments, and provide incentives to persuade jurisdictions to build more affordable homes.

In fact, this budget’s strong focus on housing is uplifting. It’s something we have not seen in years.

Beyond this strong first step, however, we urge the new administration to leverage strategies that embrace a housing-first approach. It’s important to remember what’s really happening on the ground, in our streets:

  • Youth are being forced to live outside or in their cars, or couch surf because they have reported to us time and again that shelters are either unsafe for school belongings or for themselves, or they feel unwelcome because of their age or sexual orientation.
  • Older adults, especially those beyond an age they can work, are increasingly becoming homeless because of a lack of money to keep up with rent increases or health care costs. Imagine your parent in this situation and multiply by tens of thousands of people.
  • Families are on the brink of homelessness or already homeless because of the lack of emergency assistance or affordable homes where they work and go to school.

We get phone calls every day from people looking for housing. They don’t ask where they can find a “navigation center.” They want to know where they can find an affordable apartment.

We applaud the governor for proposing incentives to motivate jurisdictions to create more affordable homes. At the same time, we look forward to working with the administration to refine his budget proposals.

His budget proposes a new program that provides incentives to motivate jurisdictions to create more affordable homes. However, cities and counties would be allowed to use this $700 million in incentives for general purposes. That’s nearly a third of new housing and homelessness funding in the budget that wouldn’t be used to directly address housing and homelessness.

If our government is going to truly prioritize housing all Californians, cities and counties must be required to put a significant portion of any incentive funding toward directly supporting the production of homes at levels affordable to people most in need.

Gov. Newsom is offering bold and effective strategies that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to seriously consider just two years ago. Housing California looks forward to working with the administration to advance game-changing solutions.

Lisa Hershey is executive director of Housing California, a statewide nonprofit advocacy organization working to prevent and end homelessness and increase the supply of affordable homes, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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