California has a patchwork of government-provided housing for people experiencing homelessness. While the nomenclature varies from city to city, the two most prevalent and important categories of housing are emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing.
Emergency Shelters: These are any facilities that provide temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness. At their most basic they are a barracks-like arrangement of cots, and provide a bed and a meal. Typically they are operated by publicly funded nonprofit and religious organizations. Many shelters bar residents from staying with partners or pets, and are often viewed by homeless people as dangerous and dirty, even compared to sleeping on the streets. A KPCC investigation of Los Angeles area shelters last year found reports of rats, bedbugs, foul odors and harassment rampant at several shelters.
But while shelter beds frequently go unused in Los Angeles County, where transportation is also a complicating factor, overall the state has a major shortage. Cities and counties across California reported last year a little more than 53,000 beds in either an emergency shelter or transitional housing — or fewer than one bed for every three people. In some areas, the ratio is as high as five people per bed; no county has at least one full bed per person.
San Francisco and Los Angeles have tried to reinvent emergency shelters, equipping them with health and social services providers who can help guide residents to more stable housing outcomes. According to city officials more than 50% of the short-term residents of San Francisco’s “navigation centers,” which are tailored to high-needs clients, are ultimately placed in housing. Emergency shelters are generally much cheaper to build than permanent supportive housing, but new projects often run into stringent community opposition.
Permanent Supportive Housing: Homelessness experts agree that emergency shelters are mostly just a Band-Aid — permanent supportive housing is the long-term solution. Usually targeted at the chronically homeless, this offers a highly subsidized apartment paired with support services including psychological counseling, substance abuse rehab and job training. Permanent supportive housing is a pillar of the “housing first” model of ending homelessness: Individuals don’t need to quit drugs or agree to participate in any program to get a permanent roof over their head. Studies show that once placed in permanent supportive housing, residents tend to stay off the streets and out of the hospital and jail, saving taxpayers considerable expense.
One problem: Permanent supportive housing is really expensive to build. In Los Angeles, a recent estimate from the city auditor put the median cost of building one unit at more than $530,000. A new project coming on line in San Jose is estimated to pencil out at roughly $470,000 per unit. The outrageous price tags aren’t just driven by land costs — a shortage of construction labor and prolonged city approval processes are also to blame. Cities including Oakland have recently begun buying and converting single-room occupancy hotels to sidestep prohibitively high new construction costs.