In California, where homelessness has risen, cities are looking for long-term solutions

The Takeaway

In some ways, homelessness has become “ingrained” as an everyday part of San Francisco’s identity. 

On any given night here, officials estimate, there are at least 6,700 people living on the streets. 

Recently, San Francisco, Sacramento and other cities in California and around the West Coast have seen an uptick in homelessness — by 3 percent — while nationwide, the numbers dropped, also by 3 percent (between 2015 and 2016), says the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual snapshot assessment of homelessness in America, which was released late last year.

Through the years, San Francisco’s mayor and city leaders have taken different approaches to solving homelessness, including outreach teams, supportive housing and both allowing for "tent cities" and dismantling them, among other things.

However, it hasn’t been enough; the city’s homeless population has held steady for the past decade. 

Kevin Fagan, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who’s long covered homelessness, attributes it to the wealth divide.

San Francisco has one of the country’s “greatest splits between rich and poor,” and the cost of living, here, is high, he says.

As a testimony to that, the vast majority of the city’s homeless population originates in San Francisco. This means that a number of residents are bouncing in and out of poverty — there’s a “churn,” as he puts it.

Over the past few years, especially, homelessness in the city has also become more visible; gentrification and development have pushed people out of alleys and other out-of-sight places and into the open — such as in tent cities.

This means that areas where, previously, someone could hole up, now are being developed. “And, so, it's displacing homeless people, so they moved to other parts of the city. And suddenly the people in the other parts of the city say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all these homeless people,’” he says.

On top of that, “some really kind-hearted citizens, which some people say are misguided, have been giving tents out to homeless people, so, you have more tents than usual.”

A 'weary cycle'

San Francisco made plenty of headway on homelessness in the mid-2000s; it ramped up its supportive housing programs significantly, and over the last decade, the city has housed 22,000 people. Additionally, San Francisco has some of the country's most innovative programs, according to Fagan.  

But at some point, the city got stuck. Today, there are still thousands of people on the streets, staying in shelters and “couch surfing,” he says.

Fagan describes the situation in depth in his December 2016 story, “No Easy Path to Ending Tent Cities,” which is part of the San Francisco Homeless Project, led by the Chronicle in collaboration with dozens of news organizations.

It’s a “weary cycle,” he says: “Camps are cleared and they come right back. Division Street, because of its sheer sprawl and an accident of timing that brought the spotlight of the Super Bowl to San Francisco, became a highly visible test of the city’s hopes of dealing with the problem in a new way, one that didn’t rely on putting people into spartan shelters for just a few nights,” the story reads.

Recently, San Francisco launched an initiative to house all homeless families within the next three years. “The trick is to ramp up quick, and then stay ahead of the curve,” Fagan says.

Above all, providing shelter is much more cost-effective than the alternative: Leaving the chronically homeless to fend for themselves amounts to about $80,000 a year, per person, in emergency services, between police and cleanup calls and jail stints.

By comparison, getting someone placed in supportive housing costs $20,000. So, it’s “very simple math,” Fagan says. “The bottom line is, you save money by housing chronically homeless people.”

'Functional Zero'

That's a philosophy that Darrell Steinberg, the new mayor of Sacramento, can get behind.

Steinberg has ambitious plans around homelessness, and early on, he lobbied for more hours at “warming centers” in the winter, as one way to serve the city's nearly 2,600 homeless people.

Although some West Coast cities have put up tent cities, temporarily, Steinberg is reluctant to follow suit, as he favors a longer-term solution — including a combination of permanent housing, clinical outreach on the streets, case management and supportive services. That's how “we can get most people off the streets,” he says.

As it is, even in the city’s best programs, there’s a long wait to get into permanent housing (called “Fair Share Housing,” or affordable or low-income housing). Which is the problem.

Ultimately, the goal is to achieve "functional zero" — where the ratio of housing units versus homeless people skews the other way, he says. 

In the near-term, Steinberg hopes to make available 2,000 units of permanent housing. “We think that will make a big dent. … I certainly don't think we can cure it. I just think we can make it much better,” he says.

To accomplish that, Steinberg is taking a multipronged approach. For starters, he plans to re-evaluate the public housing stock the city has already, looking at where it can potentially add more affordable units.

Likewise, developers, here, are required to devote a portion of their projects to low-income housing — something he hopes to expand on. 

Making a dent 

Cities like Sacramento also rely on state and federal funding to fight homelessness. 

Steinberg, the former head of the state Senate, was an author of California's Mental Health Services Act, which, in Sacramento County alone, has helped place 750 people into housing where they're also "getting the services they need," he says.

Still, “the problem, in many respects, is outstripping the resources,” he says.

(Also, a state bond under the act, which was passed in 2014, will bring $2 billion, in time, to address the problem, he says, not just in Sacramento, but all over the state.)

In recent years, he and other officials have worked closely with the Obama administration to secure waivers under Medicaid, or Medi-Cal in California, to provide "'whole person care' — whatever it takes, for people who are on the street and dealing with severe mental illness, and so those dollars and the flexibility that we now have is really important," he says.

As such, he's leery about the possibility of cuts to that program and others as the administration turns over. 

The way he sees it is, "we've grown numb to the fact that in 2017, in our state, in our country, that this condition persists. We know we can do much better. And I'm going to try. That's what I promise. I'm really going to try."

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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