Don’t look to California for homelessness ideas | Opinion

No matter how bad homelessness seems in other metropolitan areas, it pales in comparison to California’s. While the state doesn’t quite represent 12% of the US population, approximately 28% of the country’s homeless people are in California. The lesson: Don’t copy Golden State policies to alleviate homelessness – they just don’t work.

California’s homeless population wasn’t quite 139,000 in 2007. In seven years, it had fallen to around 114,000. From there, it rose sharply to over 161,000 in 2020 During the same period, the total number of homeless people in the rest of the states fell from just over 508,000 to 419,000.

This happened even though California’s economy grew about 50% faster than the rest of the country from 2014 to 2020.

Obviously, California doesn’t have the answers.

In April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Roomkey project was introduced in California. The program’s mission was to house homeless people in hotel and motel rooms, as well as trailers, to help flatten the curve of viral infections and “preserve hospital capacity,” the governor’s office said.

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From Project Roomkey grew Project Homekey, which directed state and federal funds to purchase and renovate hotels and motels, which would then become permanent housing for the homeless.

Although well-intentioned, both programs have a structural flaw: they follow the failed “housing first” approach.

Yes, homeless people need housing. But housing first, which has been official state policy since 2016, is best described as housing and nothing else. According to a study by the Cicero Institute — https://ciceroinstitute.org/research/housing-first-is-a-failure/ – attempts to reduce homelessness based on housing first seem to “attract more people from outside the homeless system, or keep them in the homeless system, because they are attracted by the promise of a permanent and generally rent-free room”. Housing First is nothing more than a program envelope because it does not address the root causes of homelessness, which for many are addictions or mental illness, and often both.

Despite Housing First’s shortcomings, California’s commitment to Project Homekey has racked up billions of dollars in federal and state spending with little to show for all the spending.

In Los Angeles, home to a third of the state’s 161,548 homeless people, the Homekey project fell short of expectations. The target of 15,000 rooms was never delivered, while Homekey’s excessive costs made it unsustainable.

Another set of issues has beset housing for the homeless in San Francisco. A Chronicle investigation found that the city’s efforts to shelter the homeless are working “with little oversight or support,” leading to “disastrous” results (https://www.sfchronicle.com/projects/2022/san-francisco-sros/). Rodents infest rooms, crime and violence are common, and death, often from overdoses, is a frequent visitor. Nonetheless, the city, along with other Bay Area communities where the Homekey project has fallen short, remains committed to the program and its poorly targeted spending.

Here are some tips for legislators across the country looking to end homelessness: Don’t ignore effective private sector innovations that are changing people’s lives. Addressing addictions and mental health issues that are at the heart of the problem must be a priority.

California continues to insist that its way is the only way. Until that changes, the state has nothing to offer other states in their fight to reduce homelessness.

Dr. Wayne Winegarden and Kerry Jackson are co-authors of the new Pacific Research Institute brief “Project Homekey Provides No Way Home for California’s Homeless.” Download a copy at www.pacificresearch.org.

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