San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 2, 2020
By Libby Schaaf and Michael Tubbs
COVID-19 could turn California’s ongoing homelessness crisis into a full-blown health and safety catastrophe. Prior to the pandemic, there were roughly 151,278 people experiencing homelessness in California. Since then, nearly 7 million Californians became first-time filers for unemployment benefits. If current conditions persist, Los Angeles County alone could experience 120,000 newly homeless households. It is time we meet the moment and take the necessary next step to coordinate our homelessness efforts.
Assembly Bill 1845 by Assemblywoman Luz Rivas, D-Arleta (Los Angeles County), and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, offers a timely, cost-saving and bold systematic solution to California’s response to homelessness. AB1845 would establish the first state Office to End Homelessness, housed in the Governor’s Office. A newly created secretary on homelessness would lead the office and report directly to the governor.
Over decades, the state has implemented multiple programs to address the needs of populations experiencing homelessness — veterans, families, children in school, people with disabilities or serious mental illness. As a result, from eight to 13 state departments administer over 30 programs funding housing and services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. All operate independently without clear oversight.
This fragmented response creates chaos. Staff across departments are charged with similar or the same responsibilities. Local governments and providers must work through bureaucratic hurdles to apply to multiple programs, often with conflicting requirements, to access critical funding. The state is also funding some programs based, not on evidence accumulated over decades of research, but on anecdote.
This fragmentation is well-documented.
In 1989, the Little Hoover Commission recommended “unifying all ‘homeless’ state programs” under one entity. Almost three decades later, in 2017, the California State Auditor found the state does not have a single entity, “charged specifically with addressing homelessness.” Even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s homelessness task force recommended creating “a single point of authority on homelessness,” suggesting, “a high-level official that reports directly to Governor Newsom.” Shortly thereafter, the Legislative Analyst’s Office called the current state response “fragmented” and recommended a consistent, coordinated response that builds upon the work of and offers greater authority than the state Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office confirmed challenges with our scattered approach, warning that the state can’t always track homeless-related expenditures, assess programmatic outcomes across departments or determine which programs work collaboratively.
The Newsom administration certainly did not create this chaos, as it is decades in the making. However, California can no longer ignore the multiple appeals of its oversight bodies to consolidate efforts and create a single point of authority to oversee and respond to our growing homelessness crisis.
With the emergence of COVID-19, and using history as our guide, we must acknowledge that it is our statewide structure for combating homelessness that bottlenecks our every attempt to respond to the growing crisis. We must turn the corner, we must be bold, we must be willing to look back and say we did everything we could to respond to this pandemic and human crisis. We cannot afford to look back and say, “We could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” responded differently.
We owe it to all Californians to do everything possible to lead our way out of this human crisis. We need AB1845.
Libby Schaaf is mayor of Oakland; Michael Tubbs is mayor of Stockton.