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 last year.

So why did L.A. County’s homeless population still grow 12% between 2018 and 2019? Because an estimated 55,000 residents simultaneously lost a place to live, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (another source puts the number closer to 34,000) . 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 counseling and defense: 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 bulked up legal services in last year’s budget for low-income tenants facing evictions.
  • Emergency rental assistance: New York and Chicago have seen early successes with programs that provide small cash assistance and landlord mediation services to renters struggling to make ends meet. Many California cities have versions of these programs. But targeting emergency aid to those most at risk of homelessness can be difficult. A pilot project from Los Angeles County, UCLA and the University of Chicago hopes to use big data and predictive analytics to better target emergency services to stem homelessness.
  • 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.