Recent infusions of state and federal funding have helped many of California’s cities and counties grapple with homelessness, even as homeless populations have increased over the past few years. PPIC’s Lande Ajose talked last week with League of California Cities CEO Carolyn Coleman, Bakersfield mayor Karen Goh, and San Diego mayor Todd Gloria about the efforts cities are making and the most important challenges that need to be addressed.
“I think it’s important to remind folks that we find ourselves in the situation we’re in today as a result of a crisis that is decades in the making,” said Carolyn Coleman. “We’re not going to solve the homelessness crisis overnight.” She laid out three lines of attack: first, stepping up efforts to prevent homelessness; second, continuing to find and share innovative local solutions; and third, urging the federal government to play a larger role in addressing what is really a national crisis. “The state and cities alone,” she said, “don’t have the financial wherewithal to solve this alone. We really need a stronger federal partnership.”
Many of the factors that contribute to the homelessness crisis—from a shortage of affordable housing, to the challenge of getting people with mental health and substance abuse disorders into treatment, to the vicissitudes of state and federal funding—extend far beyond the local level. But, unlike seemingly abstract forces or national leaders, “mayors are in communities and therefore we are held accountable,” said Gloria. So even though both mayors outlined significant progress their cities have made in adding shelter beds, expanding outreach and behavioral health treatment, and building permanent housing, both understand that their constituents are frustrated. “Our residents, our business owners are angry, they’re frustrated,” said Goh. “It’s hard for them to see the progress.”
What are the keys to progress? All agreed that California’s new CARE Courts will make a difference. “CARE Court,” said Goh, “is part of the solution.” These courts, she added, will address the challenge of helping people with severe mental health issues. “It’s going to help us compel them into treatment,” she added.
Goh and Gloria applauded recent state and federal funding—“the flexibility of dollars is going to make a big difference because each city is unique,” said Goh. However, both mayors agree with Coleman that the federal government could do more. “I would tell you what we need are more housing choice vouchers,” said Gloria. “San Diego has basically a 12-year waitlist for Section 8 assistance, and that’s an extreme challenge both for homelessness prevention as well as helping people who are on the streets.”
Collaboration with county, state, and federal partners is also key. “I have very blunt instruments for dealing with homelessness—sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters, paramedics,” said Mayor Gloria. “I don’t have mental health clinicians, I don’t have social workers, I don’t have behavioral health specialists—the county has those folks.” When the city’s housing assets are combined with the county’s human services, he added, “that’s when you really get the ability to change someone’s life.”
PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
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