Preventing homelessness

Many California cities have made significant strides in moving people from streets and shelters into safe, stable housing. The Los Angeles Housing Services Authority, buoyed by fresh state and local funds approved by voters, estimated that it was able to place more than 20,000 people experiencing homelessness into housing in 2019.

So why did L.A. County’s homeless population still grow by 13% between 2019 and 2020? Because an estimated 82,000 residents simultaneously lost a place to live, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. San Francisco officials say for every homeless person they house, another three fall into homelessness. Much to the chagrin of local politicians trying to prove taxpayer money is being spent effectively, new shelters and supportive housing will have trouble making a dent in visible homelessness unless the spigot is plugged in the first place.

States and local governments across the country (including California) are devoting a rising share of homelessness resources to prevention strategies. These include:

  • Eviction protections and emergency rental assistance: A statewide eviction moratorium in response to the COVID-19 pandemic banned landlords from kicking out tenants over missed rent payments. That was extended twice during 2021, in January and again in June, preventing an unknown number of displacements, while thousands still fell through the cracks. In October, eviction protections were mostly lifted, leaving a vacuum that tenant advocates worry will lead to increased homelessness. To help keep tenants housed and landlords paid, the state has been slowly distributing $5.2 billion of federal funds, prioritizing tenants earning 30% of the area median income.
  • Ongoing eviction counseling: Being evicted — forcibly removed from an apartment — can lead to devastating family housing instability. An eviction record also makes it exceedingly difficult to find rental housing. The Newsom administration set aside $51 million in this year’s budget for community-based organizations to offer eviction and foreclosure counseling, and another $80 million from federal coronavirus funds for the same purpose. But much to advocates’ chagrin, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have set up an ongoing funding stream for legal service organizations to provide this type of assistance.
  • Diversion and rapid re-housing: Quickly connecting individuals who just lost their home with a new one is one of the most cost effective ways of preventing long-term homelessness. In rapid re-housing programs, people teetering on the verge of homelessness or new to a shelter are often provided a security deposit, first month’s rent (or more), and connected to a landlord with an immediate vacancy.