What is the state doing about homelessness?

As homelessness has soared in California, so has state spending on programs to address it, especially in the last three years.

In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown directed $500 million to emergency homelessness funding in response to a plea for help from mayors of the state’s 11 largest cities. That same year, voters passed Prop. 1, a $4 billion bond that funds affordable housing construction. They also passed Prop. 2, a $2 billion bond to fund supportive housing for people with mental illness.

In his first year, Gov. Gavin Newsom upped the ante on homelessness spending. He designated a record $1 billion of his 2019-2020 budget to one-time investments combating homelessness, on top of $1.75 billion to expand California’s affordable housing stock. The budget includes funding to increase welfare grants for low-income families with children, to house mentally ill patients who are homeless or at-risk ,and to rapidly rehouse college students who become homeless.

Newsom’s 2020 budget proposes even more — $1.4 billion. Much of the money would go to a one-time, flexible fund that providers of homeless services could tap directly, bypassing local governments, for whatever programs they deem most helpful — emergency rental assistance, new board-and-care facilities for the mentally ill, etc. Newsom also directed state agencies to review what public land could be converted to emergency housing, and deployed 100 camp trailers from the state fleet for use as temporary shelters. 

In an effort to get local governments to cooperate with his homelessness agenda, Newsom also signed a suite of bills that remove regulatory barriers to building more housing for homeless people. Two of the new laws allow developers to bypass certain requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, which neighborhood groups have tried to use to block new housing developments such as a homeless shelter on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

A task force on homelessness Newsom assembled in May is expected to release its recommendations soon. Those will shape how Newsom tackles homelessness in 2020 on a range of issues, from whether he’ll push a legal “right to shelter” to how much money he’ll budget to try to fix the problem.

Though California spends big on homelessness, failing to house the growing number of people living on the streets may cost much more. A 2016 study found Santa Clara County spent $520 million a year on the county’s homeless population between 2007 and 2012, including the costs of health care, jail and public benefits.