When it comes to homelessness, California’s left hand doesn’t seem to know what its right hand is doing. It’s a crisis that has upwards of 160,000 people, many of them seriously addicted and/or mentally ill, living in shanty towns and encampments, many recently released from prison, many suffering chronic health issues. But every time one branch of government announces a step to tackle it, another branch of government does something blindingly stupid to exacerbate the problem. Case in point: Sacramento, where I live.
Sacramento isn’t a big city; according to recent Census estimates its population is just shy of 540,000. The surrounding county has a population of not quite 1.6 million. Yet, even before the pandemic, point-in-time counts showed upwards of 5,500 homeless on the streets, most of them within the city limits. These days, advocates and researchers estimate that number is north of 10,000. You can’t find an alleyway or freeway escarpment, an underpass, a park, or river walk not populated by homeless inhabitants with tents, cardboard shacks, and the detritus of nomadic lives. Some areas of the city now look shockingly like the shanty communities that I saw in India, South Africa, and Brazil when I traveled the world in my younger days. In many residential neighborhoods, tents dot sidewalks outside private homes. On some commercial strips, doorways serve as de facto shelters at night.
In 2020, the state pushed to add $2 billion per year to its efforts to tackle homelessness. Last year, with the state unexpectedly flush with cash, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he was devoting an unprecedented $12 billion of state money to the homelessness crisis. Earlier this year, he announced a further $2 billion in funding. The money would go to affordable and supportive housing, mental health services, drug treatment, outreach, and so on. Five hundred million dollars would also go to the cleaning up of California’s encampments, many of which are littered with needles and additional drug paraphernalia, human waste, accumulated garbage, and miscellaneous other hazards.
But no matter how much money Newsom throws at the problem, the number of homeless spirals upwards, along with the number of people dying on California’s streets and the number of neighborhoods sliding into shanty-town status. In Los Angeles alone, a staggering 1,500 homeless residents are thought to have died on city streets during the pandemic. Recently, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva blasted the governor’s initiatives, saying they were simply fueling a “homeless-industrial complex” without actually creating long-term solutions to what pretty much everybody in political office in the state recognizes is a humanitarian and urban catastrophe.
Back in Sacramento, under Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a onetime state Senate president pro tem and a specialist in mental health issues, the city has been pushing for both a right-to-shelter ordinance and, concomitantly, an obligation on the part of the homeless to accept offered shelter and to remove their tents from city streets.
Last year, as an interim measure, the city opened a number of “safe ground” encampments for tent dwellers and people living in their vehicles. They were supposed to be self-contained and monitored by social service agencies. Instead, they rapidly became magnets for homeless people from around the region, and entire neighborhoods became informal shanty towns.
More recently, this week Sacramento announced that it is tripling the number of homeless outreach workers on its payroll. Yet, just days later, in a stunning example of short-sightedness, Sacramento County announced that, because federal funding had been withdrawn, it was going to close three motels that since the start of the pandemic have been housing a total of 330 homeless individuals as a part of Governor Newsom’s Project Roomkey. The county claimed it was “working thoughtfully to ramp down” the sites, and to find alternative housing for the displaced residents. But the track record in these instances isn’t good. There simply aren’t affordable and supportive housing units available to absorb hundreds of additional homeless residents.
Over the past few years, California has “thoughtfully ramped down” its prison population, and, during the pandemic, has also released thousands from local jails. Lowering the number of incarcerated individuals is, clearly, a good idea; but doing so without providing access to housing is a ridiculously short-sighted policy. That, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, is what happened.
As far back as 2014, during the early days of mass release, thousands reportedly ended up homeless. A 2018 report found that ex-prisoners in the United States were 10 times as likely to end up homeless as were other members of the public. As the pandemic has worn on, the phenomenon of homeless ex-prisoners has only become a bigger nightmare.
In Sacramento, reports episodically circulate of police and sheriffs’ deputies from smaller cities in the county, as well as from neighboring counties, essentially dumping homeless residents in downtown encampments near the courthouse and other government facilities.
Given the scale of the crisis, simply shuffling the problem from one locale to another is a non-answer. So, too, is setting up city-blessed tent encampments that swiftly become garbage-and-waste-strewn public health hazards. The only possible way California gets a handle on this crisis is a full-court effort by all levels of government, working in tandem, coordinating responses across government agencies, to set up networks of affordable and supportive housing; to bring huge mental health and drug treatment resources to bear; to use the legal system to obligate people to accept offered shelter spaces in lieu of camping out on city streets; and to then provide those spaces—in hotels, in drug treatment facilities, and so on.
Governor Newsom’s huge investments statewide are a start. Mayor Steinberg’s right-to-shelter ordinance is a start. But none of these will work if county authorities and law enforcement agencies aren’t also fully on board with the effort to end homelessness. None of them will work if California’s various layers of government aren’t walking in lockstep on the issue.
California is currently investing tens of billions of dollars in its efforts to rein in homelessness. It will be a tragedy if, at the end of the day, despite all of the money in play, homelessness becomes an even bigger crisis than it already is.