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.”