Influencers Opinion

We need to break down root causes of California’s homeless crisis to find solutions

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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It has become impossible to walk down the streets of our largest cities and not be overwhelmed by the apparent hopelessness of the state’s homeless crisis. Which means we can either throw up our hands in despair, or we break down this one immense catastrophe into several discrete and more manageable parts.

First comes the most basic challenge: There simply aren’t enough homes anymore that working Californians can afford.

“As our housing affordability crisis has grown, more of our state’s residents are homeless because of a temporary hardship that has forced them into couch surfing or living in their car,” said Tia Boatman Patterson, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior housing adviser. “These are people that recently had housing, may still hold a decent job, and simply require more affordable housing opportunities.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has pushed to increase housing supply in urban areas and for additional financial support to Californians who can no longer pay sky-high rent.

“About 70 (percent) of homeless people have neither a mental health nor an addiction problem. They simply can’t afford housing. They are in this predicament because of California’s failure to build enough housing at any income level,” said Wiener, who is chair of the state Senate Housing Committee. “California … has systematically under-funded subsidized housing for our lowest income residents … those at the bottom of the economic ladder are at significant risk of being pushed onto the streets.”

Other Influencers advocated for marketplace solutions as the best way to increase the affordable housing supply.

“Unraveling the homelessness crisis is not simple, but we should start by making it easier for the home building sector by … reducing state fees and excessive regulations that make it more expensive to build (and) giving homebuilders the same assurance against lawsuits … that are given when building stadiums and sports arenas,” said state Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield).

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, urged lawmakers “to lower impact and other development fees, craft common-sense (California Environmental Quality Act) reforms that protect the environment without prohibiting construction, end expensive mandates like solar panels on new home development; and continue to keep rent control limited to as few communities as possible.”

Jim Boren, the former executive editor of the Fresno Bee, assailed a lack of political will among elected officials to make unpopular decisions.

“Government leaders like to convene meetings on homelessness, write reports and wring their hands at news conferences. But what they don’t want to do is upset well-connected neighbors who fight affordable housing projects that could put homeless into safe housing,” said Boren, who is now the executive director for Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust. “(We need to) build safe and affordable housing, even if the neighbors protest.”

Influencers from across the political spectrum called for a range of additional services for the homeless whose struggles go beyond affordability.

“For those homeless individuals who face mental health and substance abuse challenges, we must bolster access to treatment and care, emphasizing community-based best practices,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica).

San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford outlined steps she and her colleagues have taken.

“In San Bernardino County, we are partnering with a nonprofit staffing agency to provide job coaching, placement, transportation assistance, and other support aimed at helping them find stable work despite the often steep employment barriers they face,” said Rutherford, a Republican. “If they’re receiving care for those issues and employed, their quality of life is better and the cost to taxpayers is reduced.”

Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Association, offered a proposal that would allow his industry to provide free housing to homeless individuals with mental health challenges.

“Land formerly held within redevelopment areas are too often tangled in a costly web of regulation … Amazingly enough, builders are finding this difficult to accomplish in California,” Dunmoyer said. “Legislation is needed to make it easier to provide charity housing when a willing community comes together to offer their skills and resources to build housing – for free.”

Ashley Swearengin, president of the Central Valley Community Foundation, made it clear neither government nor business interests could solve the problem alone.

“Engage the broader community and align local public and private resources; reduce inflow to homelessness by adequately resourcing for homelessness prevention; improve crisis response; and increase availability of permanent housing,” said Swearengin, who is the former mayor of Fresno. “All of the sectors – private, public, faith-based, health, philanthropic – must be committed to a community driven response.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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