No matter how bad the homelessness problem looks in other metropolitan areas, they pale compared to California’s. While the state accounts for not quite 12 percent of the U.S. population, roughly 28 percent of the nation's homeless are in California. The lesson: Don’t copy the Golden State’s policies for mitigating homelessness – they simply don’t work.
California’s homeless population was not quite 139,000 in 2007. Within seven years, it had fallen to about 114,000. From there, it grew sharply to more than 161,000 in 2020. Over the same period, the total homeless in the rest of the states fell from a little more than 508,000 to 419,000.
This happened even though California’s economy expanded about 50 percent faster than the rest of the country from 2014 to 2020.
Clearly California does not have the answers.
In April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic struck, Project Roomkey was introduced in California. The program’s mission was to house the homeless in hotel and motel rooms, as well as trailers, to help flatten the curve of viral infections and “preserve hospital capacity,” said the governor’s office.
From Project Roomkey grew Project Homekey, which directed state and federal funds for the purchase and renovation of hotels and motels, which would then become permanent housing for the homeless.
While well-intentioned, both programs have a structural flaw: they follow the failed “housing first” approach.
Yes, the homeless need homes. But housing first, which has been the official state policy since 2016, is better described as housing-and-nothing-else. According to a Cicero Institute study, attempts to alleviate homelessness based on housing first appear “to attract more people from outside the homeless system, or keep them in the homelessness system, because they are drawn to the promise of a permanent and usually rent-free room.” Housing first is nothing more than a husk of a program because it doesn’t treat the root causes of homelessness, which for many are addiction or mental illness, and often both.
Despite the shortcomings of housing first, California’s commitment to Project Homekey has racked up billions in expenditures of federal and state dollars without having much if anything to show for all the spending.
In Los Angeles, where a third of the state’s 161,548 homeless are located, Project Homekey has not met expectations. The 15,000 rooms that were set as the goal were never provided, while the excessive costs of Homekey have made it unsustainable.
A different set of problems has beset homeless housing in San Francisco. An investigation by the Chronicle found that the city’s effort to shelter the homeless operate “with little oversight or support,” which has led to “disastrous” results. Rodents infest rooms, crime and violence is common, and death, often from overdoses, a frequent visitor. Nevertheless, the city, as well as other Bay Area communities where Project Homekey has shown itself to be insufficient, remain dedicated to the program and its poorly aimed spending.
Here's some advice for lawmakers across the country looking to beat homelessness: don’t ignore effective innovations from the private sector that are changing people’s lives. Treating the addictions and mental health struggles that are at the core of the problem must be a priority.
California continues to insist its way is the only way. Until that changes, the state has nothing to offer other states in their struggle 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. Opinions expressed are those of the authors.