Op-Ed: California spends billions on homelessness yet the crisis keeps getting worse

Andrea Zeppa, homeless services regional coordinator for Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless, and Deidra Perry, far right, program financial manager for Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless, team up during Alameda County’s 2024 point-in-time count in Berkeley on Jan. 25, 2024. The PIT count, which included a voluntary survey, gathers data on the county’s homeless population. [Photo by Loren Elliott for CalMatters]

By Dan Walters | CalMatters Commentary

California not only has the nation’s largest number of homeless people, but one of its highest rates of homelessness vis-à-vis its overall population.

The last official count found more than 181,000 Californians without homes, nearly a third of the nation’s homeless population. When new data are released later this year, the number will probably approach 200,000.

The numbers have continued to grow despite many billions of dollars in federal, state and local funds having been spent – $20 or so billion by the state alone over the last five years. As the problem worsens, it consistently ranks as one of Californians’ most pressing public policy issues, polling has found.

How is it, one might ask, that so much money could be spent with so little, if any, progress?

One factor, certainly, is that the underlying causes of homelessness, such as sky-high housing costs, family breakups, mental illness and drug addiction have not abated.

Another, probably, is that here is no consensus on what programs would be most successful and officialdom has taken a scattergun approach, providing money to a bewildering array of often overlapping programs and services in hopes of finding approaches that work.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who pledged 20 years ago to end homelessness in San Francisco when serving as the city’s mayor, is touting a measure on the March 5 ballot that would authorize bonds to build facilities for treating the mentally ill and redirect some funds from a two-decade-old special mental health tax into new programs. He’s also won legislative approval of “CARE courts” that could compel some mentally ill Californians into receiving treatment.

The multiplicity of programs to deal with homelessness cries out for some kind of independent appraisal of what’s been spent and how effective the spending has been.

We may get such an overview soon because the Legislature has approved a request from Republicans for the state auditor to delve into what’s been spent.

“Homelessness is the most urgent issue facing California,” said state Sen. Roger Niello of Roseville, one of those making the request. “Given the crisis has only worsened, we need to know what the money has accomplished and what programs have been effective in moving people to permanent housing.”

One area the state auditor should examine is what could be termed “bang-for-the-buck” – the startlingly expensive costs of providing even the most basic services to homeless Californians.

Sacramento, like other large California cities, has a large and growing homeless population and a new report from the city auditor is indicative of that aspect of the homeless crisis.

Auditor Farishta Ahrary said the city, which faces a $66 million budget deficit, spent $57 million on homelessness during the 2022-23 fiscal year, $34 million of it on maintaining about 1,300 beds of temporary shelter, or enough to house about a third of the city’s homeless people. Overall that’s about $26,000 per bed or $2,000-plus per month, which would equal the rent on a mid-range apartment.

Three contracts for shelters between the city and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency amounting to more than $10 million stand out. Two 100-bed facilities cost the city almost $7 million – well over $100 per bed per day – while the third, $3.3 million for a 24-bed shelter for young people, cost the city $373 per day for each bed.

Sacramento is not alone in paying a lot of money for rudimentary shelters, and costs of that magnitude indicate that California would have to spend much more than the current levels to put roofs over the heads of its homeless people.

Meanwhile, Newsom is proposing to pare back homelessness spending because the state faces a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to Commentary.


Written by CalMatters

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. (Articles are published in partnership with edhat.com)

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  1. I just have to wonder with open borders and California welcoming migrants with open arms has anything to do with the never ending homeless problems. When you compare Texas to California, as a migrant where would you be headed

      • There is very little English spoken or American music played at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission by those who stay there. I am there daily. I don’t sleep there. English speaking Americans are the ones sleeping outside. That is a FACT. Google my name with Santa Barbara in the query. Look at my instagram.

    • If you’re convinced the border is currently open then you must be mad as heck at the MAGA Repubs who denied a bipartisan bill that would further restrict the number of migrants allowed in each day, provide more $$ to border patrol agents, deport more people than we ever have under any president, and strike up a deal with Mexico to have them control their side of the borders. Doesn’t that make you so mad that a few GOP’ers are preventing the government from doing this??

  2. The politicians continue to spend taxpayer dollars to “solve” this problem, yet the problem gets worse. A classic case of doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. And don’t forget, there is a large bureaucracy involved with administering these billions of our dollars, after they take out their pay that is. So their incentive is to keep the same process going to keep their rice bowls full…

    • This is actually accurate. I am homeless in Santa Barbara and probably have a clearer picture of the situation than anyone trying to “solve” it. If you want to read something from boots on the ground read my comment that was deleted if you can.

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