California is its own worst enemy when it comes to homelessness

But here’s how the state can start to make real change

Cal Matters, Mar. 8, 2020

By David Flanagan and Michele Steeb

In his State of the State address, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared California’s homelessness crisis a disgrace and declared: “Health care and housing can no longer be divorced.”

Newly released data from the federal government unequivocally supports the governor’s assertion.

In 2011-2013, there was an extraordinary shift in federal homelessness policy with the advent of Housing First, a one-size-fits-all approach that formally decoupled healthcare services from housing. Since then, homelessness has literally exploded, despite a significant increase in funding.

In 2009, Housing First was adopted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to specifically address the needs of the homeless with severe addiction and mental illness, an estimated 10-15% of the total homeless population.

Without any credible evidence, in 2013, Housing and Urban Development rolled it out as a panacea for all homeless people, even promising it would end homelessness.

The state of California followed by adopting housing first in 2016 as its one-size-fits-all policy, as did many local Governments including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.

Their results are the most dismal in the nation:

California homelessness shot up 16.4% in 2019, the second largest increase of any state.

Los Angeles, up 16%

San Francisco, up 18%

Sacramento, 19%

Under Housing First, the homeless are provided life-long, permanent housing.

It strictly prohibits, however, any requirement of service engagement—including mental health and addiction services—to address the underlying factors that led to a person’s homelessness.

As a result, California non-profits that pair housing with engagement in health services, including sobriety, are completely ineligible for federal, state and local government funding.


Proponents suggest that, once housed, people can opt for services to treat their addiction or mental illness. This fails to consider that people trying to escape the grip of addiction or mental illness or both are rarely able to make such a decision. Many of them suffer from what psychiatrists call anosognosia, a lack of self-awareness. They’re too ill to know they’re ill.

Housing First also fails to consider that the delivery of services to disparate, scattered housing is extremely costly and inefficient. It also ignores a recent report that California lacks the behavioral health workers to make it happen.

California lawmakers should be concerned that under Housing First, women and their children are all treated identically. That is a direct contradiction to the lessons learned by California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Once corrections officials instituted a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach in their overpopulated prisons, female recidivism rates fell by 21% in just eight years.

And it was the need for a tailored approach for youth that drove Gov. Newsom to shift control of the Juvenile Justice Division to the California Health and Human Services Agency, away from the department of corrections, to better identify and address early childhood trauma to prevent future incarceration.

Lawmakers need to focus on the factors that have led to a virtual halt on the production of affordable housing. However, estimates are that once these issues are resolved—if they are resolved– the time to construct the number of units needed to meet demand will take more than a decade.

Here’s what California lawmakers can do in the meantime to address this crisis:

Abandon housing first as the state’s sole approach to homelessness.

Fund programs that couple housing and health services, including programs that require sobriety.

Prioritize the funding of tailored, gender-responsive approaches, including programs tailored to the unique needs of families.

Ensure funding is tied to programs that have demonstrated results in helping the homeless reach their full human potential, including self-sustainability when appropriate.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should quickly follow suit.

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