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The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified California’s homelessness crisis while significantly straining the state budget. In an online event last Friday, Los Angeles County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg talked with PPIC’s Mark Baldassare about what California can do to address homelessness during this unprecedented time.

As the co-chairs of Governor Newsom’s task force on homelessness—officially known as the Governor’s Council of Regional Homeless Advisors—Ridley-Thomas and Steinberg had a wealth of knowledge to share about the problem and solutions.

For Ridley-Thomas, California’s most urgent obligation is to its most vulnerable homeless residents—those who are 65 and older and have health issues. The state must also address the racial disproportionality of homelessness. As Steinberg noted, “6.5% of Californians identify as African American, but 40% of the homeless population is African American.” Race, said Ridley-Thomas, “has been the struggle of America since its founding,” so it is not surprising that “this disproportionality is fundamentally driven by racism.”

Steinberg drew a line from Civil Rights-era reforms and the urgent need to address homelessness. “It is no longer enough to say you’re free from outright discrimination when you seek to be housed.” Indeed, “Homelessness ought to be unacceptable in terms of law, not just as a matter of moral outrage.”

A shift toward this paradigm may be under way. When Baldassare asked about a federal injunction requiring Los Angeles to relocate homeless individuals living near freeways, Ridley-Thomas explained: “We were sued by individuals who were just fed up with the lack of progress,” and the lawsuit has compelled the city and county to “step up to the plate in a nonnegotiable way.”

Steinberg highlighted Assembly Bill 3269, which draws from recommendations generated by the Governor’s Council. The bill would mandate a 90% reduction in homelessness in every city and county by 2028. If it becomes law, AB 3269 could hold counties and cities accountable and motivate them to consolidate resources and work collaboratively. Right now, he said, “there’s a lot of inefficiency and ineffectiveness along with a lot of great work.”

Both Steinberg and Ridley Thomas pointed to Project Roomkey, which has placed thousands of homeless Californians in hotel rooms during the pandemic, as a step in the right direction. “What Project Roomkey has demonstrated is that if we put our mind to it, if we work across jurisdictional lines,” Steinberg said. The big challenges now are to find long-term housing for those people and to prevent renters who lost jobs during the pandemic from being evicted because they cannot pay back rent. These challenges underline the need for a “revolution in this state around innovative housing products,” Steinberg said.

While the challenges are significant, Ridley-Thomas is optimistic. Citing the allocation of resources to address homelessness in Governor Newsom’s first two budgets, he said, “We’re already making progress of consequence. And some of us are just determined not to turn back.”

Last Friday, Los Angeles County released homeless counts for 2020, showing numbers jumped 13% from January 2019 to January 2020. This spike occurred even before the pandemic-induced shutdown devastated the finances of many Californians. The statistics for California have been sobering for years. According to HUD point in time counts, the homeless population rose by 16% from 2018 to 2019, and the state is home to about half of the nation’s unsheltered homeless.

CalFresh, the state’s largest means-tested food assistance program, is one of few safety net supports accessible to adults without children who are experiencing homelessness. And because CalFresh benefits typically can be used only to buy groceries or seeds for planting, several counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange, have obtained the authority to enable elderly, disabled and homeless recipients to buy meals in certain restaurants.

In data from 2016–2018, on average about 340,000 CalFresh beneficiaries, or 8.4%, were homeless at some point during the year. Younger adults, age 18–49, make up a solid majority at about 60% of the CalFresh homeless, while children comprise 14% and adults 50 and older make up about a quarter. Strikingly, about 39% of CalFresh recipients in families containing only adults ages 18–49 are homeless, while 3% of recipients in families with children are homeless.

Most homeless CalFresh beneficiaries are eligible for the maximum CalFresh benefit, averaging about $175 per family member per month. But most younger adults have no other support. That is, less than 1 in 4 younger adults without children have current income from other parts of the social safety net—primarily General Assistance or social security—while 29% of older adults have other safety net income.

Nearly two-thirds of homeless CalFresh families with children have access to other parts of the social safety net. For example, 59% have access to CalWORKs. Across all family types, 14% have income from earnings in the current month—although other research shows that higher shares have earnings in earlier months.

Figure - Homeless CalFresh Recipients Rely Substantially on Their CalFresh Benefit

Policymakers and stakeholders have long been working to improve access to CalFresh so that more Californians have the ability to afford food. For example, a year ago California expanded the CalFresh program to include Supplemental Security Income (SSI/SSP) recipients.

During this recession, federal actions have been key because the federal government underwrites most CalFresh benefits. The pandemic-related FFRCA and CARES Acts included several provisions related to food assistance, including postponing strict work requirements to qualify for benefits that likely helped a number of homeless CalFresh adults. The House-passed HEROES Act proposes extending many temporary provisions and would temporarily increase CalFresh benefits. If enacted, these provisions would help 4.5 million Californians now accessing CalFresh, including many of those experiencing homelessness.

Today is Census Day, the day to count everyone living in the country in 2020. It’s not the deadline for responses—you have until August 14 to complete your census form—just the “anchor day” for counting those living in your household. We talked to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla about the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic brings to counting Californians—and for holding elections in November.

Photo - Alex PadillaPPIC: What challenges does the pandemic bring to conducting the census?

ALEX PADILLA: Ensuring a fair and accurate count is tough under normal circumstances, and it’s made more challenging by this global health pandemic. A lot of the state and local strategies for engaging the public on the census have had to be modified or replaced with ones that are more effective when people are staying at home. The good news is, this is the first time it’s been possible to do the census online, as well as by phone or paper. We’re seeing people get more creative at staying in touch while keeping their distance, whether through video chats with their coworkers or using teleconferencing to stay in touch with family and friends. We can also use these methods to remind everyone to do the census.

It’s really important to remember that participation in the census is how we ensure our communities receive their fair share of federal dollars for critical needs such as public health, education, public safety, housing, and infrastructure. This message is really striking a chord right now.

PPIC: As they shelter in place, what can Californians do to help ensure an accurate census count?

AP: Every Californian should participate in the census, but also remind people they’re in touch with to do so. Assuring a complete and fair count depends on everyone doing the census. It’s not just a count of adults or voters or citizens; it’s for everybody living here.

California has an especially high number of hard-to-count populations—for example, communities of color, young people, and immigrant families and communities. More than 70% of Californians fit into a hard-to-count category. It already takes extra effort to ensure participation by these groups. The pandemic is not making the job any easier—at a time when the job is more important than ever for ensuring the state gets its share of federal funding for critical needs over the next decade.

Based on the prior census 10 years ago, California’s most undercounted population were kids under five years old. My youngest just turned five, and especially now with all the kids at home, it’s hard to imagine forgetting to include him as he’s the loudest member of our household! Today, kids who weren’t counted in 2010 are now teens who’ve been in school for years, but their schools haven’t been getting their full share of federal education dollars. It’s a very tangible way to think about it, and it shows the importance of the census for our quality of life.

There are many options for participating in the census. Go online or call in today. Once you’ve submitted your information, help us by spreading the word with neighbors you’re checking in on and friends and family.

PPIC: Talk about the administration of the upcoming election.

AP: To put it in context, we should recognize that throughout the nation’s history, Americans have gone to the polls—in times of war, during the Great Depression, and even during the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. So it’s not a matter of if or when we’ll hold the election. We have a date: it’s Tuesday, November 3. It’s a matter of how we hold the election in a way that is accessible, secure, and healthy for everyone—voters, elections personnel, poll workers. Many things California has championed to get more people voting really make a lot of sense in an era of public distancing. You can register to vote online. Voting by mail and in-person early voting are good ways to avoid crowds. We’re diligently working on expanding those opportunities.

The COVID-19 crisis has upended the carefully laid plans for the 2020 Census in ways that might have disproportionate effects on California’s count. The Census Bureau is making important adjustments, but California needs to be particularly vigilant about the potential consequences.

The Bureau began its self-response period on March 12, when it started mailing out invitations to participate in the census to virtually every household in the country. Self-response remains the safest and simplest way to gather census data because, unlike in-person interviews, it does not raise the risk of coronavirus exposure.

The virus has altered almost every other effort the Bureau had planned. The Bureau always does extensive follow-up with households that fail to self-respond. More people are likely to need follow-up in California than in the average state, so problems with that process will be felt more acutely here. Follow-up is generally in person, which raises risks that didn’t exist just a few weeks ago; at least one census worker has even tested positive for the virus. To accommodate some of these challenges, the Bureau has delayed hiring and pushed back both the start of the follow-up (from May 13 to May 28) and the cutoff date for completed self-response forms (from July 31 to August 14).

The Bureau’s plans for counting those in less conventional living arrangements have been upended as well. The original plan for group quarters such as college dorms and senior living facilities was to send out a census worker to collect information for the entire facility from a contact person. College students are supposed to be counted as if at school, but many have been sent away from their campuses. And senior facilities are protecting their highly vulnerable residents by strictly limiting access. The Bureau is exploring alternative approaches.

People who are homeless, particularly those living on the street or in cars, are especially difficult to count. Estimates suggest that homelessness is a bigger and faster-growing problem in California than in almost any other state. The Bureau had planned to count homeless people wherever they happened to be from March 30 to April 1. But the homeless population is especially vulnerable to the virus, and sending census workers out to count in person would put the workers and their communities at risk. The Bureau has delayed this effort by a month to lower the risk of contagion.

Finally, the Bureau does a wide range of communications work just to get the message out that the census is happening and is important. The Bureau’s carefully developed media campaign is likely to be overwhelmed by news about the pandemic. Moreover, a significant amount of outreach was to be conducted in physical spaces by trusted messengers in each community. All of that will need to be rethought. Not only are large gatherings generally banned, but most community spaces are closed.

Though there is some scheduling flexibility, a hard deadline looms. By law, the Bureau must submit total state populations to the president by December 31 so that congressional representation can be adjusted to reflect changes in population over the previous 10 years. This is the most basic constitutional function of the census. Changing that deadline would require congressional approval and could complicate the process of redrawing the lines of representational districts.

These challenges are significant, but a strong performance during the self-response period will mitigate them. PPIC will be monitoring and providing key analysis of the self-response process to help ensure that the state is in the best possible position before the follow-up period begins.

To take a closer look at access to care, PPIC has created an interactive, California Critical Care during COVID-19.

To reduce community spread of COVID-19, California has instituted statewide guidance to shelter in place until further notice, and to practice social distancing when leaving home for approved activities such as grocery shopping or exercise. Because COVID-19 is novel, no vaccine is available and no one has preexisting immunity. However, individuals are not equally at risk, and there are several known sources of vulnerability.

There are Californians at elevated risk of exposure to the coronavirus. For some, this risk is due to the nature of their work, as is the case for physicians, nurses, and other front-line medical staff. For others, such as California’s approximately 115,000 prisoners and 150,000 homeless individuals, living conditions pose serious challenges to social distancing. And being over 60 or having an underlying health condition makes over one-third of California’s adults especially vulnerable to serious or fatal complications—this estimate does not include undiagnosed medical conditions, which puts the actual figure higher.

Californians in the state’s 21 rural counties may have lower exposure to the coronavirus because of the relative ease of social distancing. These individuals, who make up over 837,000 residents, may face significant challenges if they do contract the coronavirus. California’s rural adults are more likely to smoke than urban ones (16.8% versus 11.0%) (California Health Interview Survey 2018), and smoking is suspected to put coronavirus patients at higher risk of complications because it is known to damage lung health.

figure - Urban and Rural Californians’ Smoking Habits

Rural residents often have to travel farther to access critical care resources. This is especially concerning for the large numbers of elderly Californians who are low income, geographically isolated, or living alone in the state’s rural areas (California Department of Aging 2019).

In California’s March 3 primary, the state ballot will feature several initiatives—including a $15 billion bond for the construction and modernization of public education facilities. Slightly more than half of likely voters approve, while 42% are opposed and 8% are undecided. PPIC researcher Dean Bonner outlined this and other key findings from the latest PPIC Statewide Survey at a briefing in Sacramento last Friday.

In November, Californians may be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would require state and local governments to provide housing or shelter beds to all homeless residents. About six in ten adults and 55% of likely voters say they would vote yes on such an amendment. Majorities of adults and likely voters also support Governor Newsom’s proposal to allocate $1 billion to address homelessness.

Other survey highlights:

  • More than six in ten Californians say housing affordability is a big problem in their part of the state, and the cost of living is causing many to consider moving out of California.
  • A majority of Californians (53%) approve of the way Governor Newsom is handling his job; this is the governor’s highest approval rating to date.
  • Views on the governor’s plan to scale back the high-speed rail project are mixed, while most approve of his proposal to build only one tunnel under the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.
  • Bernie Sanders leads all other Democratic presidential candidates with 32% support among Democratic primary likely voters. Joe Biden has 14% support, 13% support Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg were tied at 12%.

Supported with funding from the Californian Health Care Foundation

In his State of the State address last week, Gavin Newsom focused almost exclusively on homelessness—a significant long-term problem and major concern for state residents. In 2019, 150,000 Californians—more than a quarter of the US homeless population—were counted as homeless. California’s rate of homelessness rose to 38 per 10,000 residents, the third highest in the nation.

What is more, 72% of California’s homeless residents are unsheltered, living on the street or in parks and other makeshift spaces. And nearly three in ten self-report as chronically homeless—having been on the streets for more than a year.

Figure: California's Homelessness Crisis is Longstanding
Californians across the state are feeling the gravity of this issue. The latest PPIC Statewide Survey finds that more than 8 in 10 Californians see homelessness as a problem in their part of the state (86% adults, 89% likely voters).

figure -

Considering these numbers, it does not come as surprise that Governor Newsom has made homelessness a major focus. Citing the connection between chronic homelessness, mental health, and behavioral health, Newsom has underlined the importance of policies and investments that allow for “whole person” care. By linking current funding sources and asking lawmakers to expand the use of funds for services provided to the homeless population—especially those involved with the criminal justice system and at-risk foster youth—the governor hopes to improve and integrate these services.

The PPIC Statewide Survey finds that a full 70% of Californians—and 64% of likely voters—favor the governor’s proposed $1 billion budget expenditure to address homelessness. State leadership and investment are key, but there is only so much that can be done at the statewide level. Finding solutions to homelessness requires coordination between the federal, state, and local levels, as well as collaboration across sectors—including housing, health, and social services.

This research was supported with funding from the Arjay and Frances F. Miller Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the PPIC Donor Circle.

The state’s K–12 system may be entering a long period of declining enrollment. But statewide trends tell only part of the story and can mask important differences across counties and districts. This interactive map allows you to see historical and projected changes in K–12 enrollment in each of California’s 58 counties. For more information, see the PPIC report Declining Enrollment in California Schools: Fiscal Challenges and Opportunities in the Coming Decade.

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