By Matt Tinoco, KPCC
Sidewalk shantytowns are as iconic as palm trees in California these days. Though state and local governments are finally spending big on the homelessness, they’re not moving fast enough.
That’s the case argued by a new generation of homeless advocates in California, despite billions of dollars earmarked to address homelessness by state and local governments.
As inequality increases, and encampments sprout in virtually every city statewide, some Californians are taking it upon themselves to address the pressing needs of homeless people in their neighborhoods, doing the work they think government should be doing, but isn’t.
They’ve gotten to know their homeless neighbors, and they’ve started pushing for the government to move faster and reconsider how it’s addressing what a United Nations report in September 2018 called a “cruel and inhumane” humanitarian crisis.
Though one in eight Americans is a Californian, one in four homeless Americans live in the Golden State. It’s not because of an inviting climate or easy access to public aid.
Stagnant wages and escalating housing costs force people to the street. California ranks 49th in the nation in housing units per capita, and about 30 percent of the state’s renters spend more than half their income on housing, according to researchers at Harvard University.
For these residents, the California Dream of an affordable middle-class paradise has dissolved. Hundreds of thousands flee for lower cost states. Those who can’t afford to move become homeless, driving their neighbors to action.
Consider the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition in Los Angeles. What started as a band of neighbors who wanted to get to know their homeless neighbors on a first name basis has grown into one of the strongest advocates for the homeless in its corner of the city, between downtown L.A., Hollywood.
For the past two years, SELAH volunteers have visited the same homeless encampments every other weekend. None of the group’s core volunteers are professional homeless service workers.
“We wanted to give a way for neighbors who wanted to help their homeless neighbors a pathway to do that regularly,” said Nithya Raman a co-founder of the organization.
At first, that meant donating blankets, food, socks, and other items that homeless people need to survive outside. As volunteers returned to the same encampments week after week, they developed deeper friendships. While they try to help them navigate Los Angeles County’s byzantine homeless services complex, they come face to face with the system’s inability to meet the immediate needs of most people living on the street.
“We realized there was a real need to not just do the outreach and get to know people and connect for services, but to advocate for more services within walking distance of most of the encampments here,” said Raman.
In the neighborhoods SELAH serves, there is nowhere for homeless people to go if they want to access public services. If a homeless person calls and asks where to go, they’re typically referred to access points that take more than two hours to walk to.
Opening, or at least helping to open, a service center somewhere in the area nearby is one of SELAH’s primary goals.
Billions of dollars available
Around California, Los Angeles is typically held up as a role model for how to address homelessness. Its voters approved a pair of landmark ballot measures in 2016 and 2017 that raise nearly $5 billion for homeless housing and services.
Following Los Angeles, Santa Barbara County voters raised their taxes to pay for homeless services in November 2017. San Francisco voters passed Proposition C in 2018, and Santa Clara County voters re-upped a sales-tax that funds anti-homelessness programs. Alameda County and San Diego County are eyeing similar initiatives in 2020. And, voters statewide signed off last November on $6 billion of state money to subsidize the construction of housing for poor and homeless Californians.
2018 also saw direct investment by the state for the first time, after years of pawning off homelessness as a local issue. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown authorized $500 million in grants for cities and counties through the Homeless Emergency Aid Program.
Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing to do it again. His first budget proposal outlines another $500 million in grants for cities and counties to develop and execute local plans to address homelessness.
“We want modern emergency shelters,” said Newsom at his budget keynote address. “I have been a housing first person, but the severity of this crisis with the unsheltered requires urgency [and] a new version of emergency shelters”
For years, the “Housing First” model is how government has conceived of treating homelessness: Give homeless people keys to a home with a door they can lock, and then work with them to get a job, healthcare, and whatever else they need after they are stably housed.
The model works, but it is dependent on having housing available.
That’s a tall order in infamously housing short California. While tens of thousands of people are being moved from the street to permanent housing, there are hundreds of thousands in need.
“We are housing people. We are getting people off the streets. But there’s always an influx, and it’s not an influx of people coming here from somewhere else. It’s people from here who are losing their housing, and stumble, stumble, stumble, now they’re on the street,” said Dorit Dowler-Guerrero, another SELAH co-founder, herself a low-income housing provider. “We’re doing a damn good job of getting people housed. What we are not doing a good job of is preventing people from becoming unhoused.”
The vast majority of homeless people in California are longtime residents deprived of housing by poverty, social isolation and misfortune. In Los Angeles County, where about 53,000 people are homeless on any given night, two-thirds of those on the street have lived in the county for more than 20 years, according to the most recent demographic survey by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
In Alameda County in 2017, every homeless person who service providers helped find housing was offset by two more who became homeless for the first time, according to the county’s continuum of care.
All of this has advocates clamoring for a shift in the status-quo: for local, county, and state governments to treat California’s homelessness crisis more like an emergency than a problem that can be addressed by connecting homeless people to permanent housing one at a time.
“The money’s there, but we need the hard infrastructure,” said Mel Tillekeratne, who operates a nonprofit, The Shower of Hope. His organization contracts with local governments to provide public showers in about a dozen locations around Los Angeles County. Besides operating as pop-up access points for homeless services, street-oriented services like public showers provide basic sanitary services that are otherwise unavailable to people on the street.
“We need to roll out bridge housing, we need more mobile showers, we need more safe parking sites,” he said. “It's disappointing that in such a progressive city there's this mentality that we can send people away to somewhere else without recognizing that these are Angelenos who were priced out of their own homes and are now on the street. We need to address homelessness in a way that meets people’s needs without thinking they’re going to disappear."
He does this through his nonprofit by converting trailers into mobile showers, and parking them for hours at a time in service-poor parts of the Southern California.
“We get a person every day who hasn’t showered in a month,” he said.
As much money as there is floating around in the homeless services sector, Tillekeratne says it’s slow to actually reach the people in need.
Growing frustration from all sides
Advocates aren’t the only ones questioning the status-quo. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, the city’s chief accountant, is asking similar questions as he watches voter approved money accumulate unspent in city accounts while encampments mushroom up. “We have to find a way to use the money more expeditiously and efficiently,” said Galperin.
The money he’s referring to, supplied by a $1.2 billion dollar bond measure voters approved in November 2016, has largely been earmarked to build 10,000 units of supportive housing — homes for people who in another era would have been institutionalized.
But building new housing takes time. Even now, more than two years later, not one unit of housing funded by it has been completed. That has Galperin asking if the money would be better used a different way, one that more immediately addresses the humanitarian crisis on the city’s streets.
Galperin’s office is early in the process of auditing the city’s use of voter-approved money for homeless housing. He expects to complete it later in 2019.
“The number one priority has to be to find a way to get people off the street, to relieve some of that suffering and the many problems that we see happening on our streets because of the crisis of homelessness.” said Galperin. “Building units that we’re not going to see for years and years is not working.”
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.