California counted its homeless population, but can it track the money?

In summary

Volunteers fanned out across the state for the first statewide count of California’s homeless population since 2020. The number is expected to be higher, raising more questions about the impact of the state’s increased spending.

As she headed to her car after two hours of counting and surveying Sacramento’s homeless population, the state’s top housing official acknowledged there is a long road ahead.

“We’re building the system, building the capacity, building the data, and communities are rising to the occasion. I know people are really frustrated because they feel like they don’t see that change,” said Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. “But I don’t think you can see change that is going to be long-lasting overnight.”

As she spoke, just a few blocks away, a homeless encampment was going up in flames. 

No one was injured, unlike a fire earlier the same day at a San Francisco encampment that killed a woman and that Gov. Gavin Newsom called “unconscionable.” But dozens of people — who had been camping beneath the on-ramp to Highway 50 on one of the coldest nights of the year — watched as firefighters sprayed hundreds of gallons of water at the inferno they had once called home.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said John Vasquez, who said he had been living there for nearly two years. “We don’t have anything. Everything got burned. Clothes, tents, IDs.”

The 911 call came from another volunteer for Sacramento’s point-in-time count, a Census-like tally of people experiencing homelessness that took place across California last week. As those numbers trickle in over the summer, experts believe the data will help illustrate the reality Californians can no longer ignore: Homelessness has reached a tipping point.

John Vasquez, 61, sorts through the remains of a fire at a homeless encampment under Highway 80, near 14th Street, in Sacramento on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
John Vasquez, 61, sorts through the remains of a fire at a homeless encampment under Highway 80, near 14th Street, in Sacramento on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

California last tallied its homeless population in January 2020, and found at least 161,000 people without a roof over their heads on any given night, with the biggest concentration in Los Angeles. Most were single adults, about a third were chronically homeless and Black Californians were over-represented in the count nearly five-fold.

The world has changed a lot during the deadliest pandemic in a century.

The state poured billions of dollars into alleviating homelessness, creating thousands of new shelter beds and housing units. But the housing affordability crisis — to which most experts attribute homelessness — only worsened as millions lost their jobs and rents skyrocketed. Shelters also reduced bed capacity and federal officials urged local law enforcement not to disband camps like the one in Sacramento to guard against the coronavirus, making tent cities more visible than ever.

That’s why most researchers aren’t wondering whether the new homeless numbers will show an increase. The only question is, by how much.

The result of California’s tally is very likely to be an undercount, in part because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which orders the count, excludes people who are couch-surfing or staying in cheap motels in their definition of homelessness. Researchers say that means families with children who are teetering on the edge are most likely to be overlooked.

It also relies largely on volunteers to count what they think they see, and on local agencies to calculate the population of the areas they don’t cover, estimations later verified by HUD.

“I’m counting one, two, three, four, five, six down there, seven, maybe eight tents on this side,” said Jason Pu, HUD’s regional administrator in charge of California, Arizona, Hawaii and Nevada, pointing across the dimly lit street at a string of tents and tarps beside Highway 50. “What do you think?”

Cities with a dropoff in volunteers because of the ongoing pandemic may report a drop in the homeless population, even if it actually grew, said Chris Weare, a UC Berkeley lecturer who researches homelessness. Weare believes some jurisdictions keep their count artificially low for political optics, even though a city’s share of state and federal homeless dollars is based on these numbers.

“Think of the headlines,” he said.

Is all the money making a difference?

For all its flaws, the count is still an invitation for policymakers to interact with the people affected by their decisions, Castro Ramírez said at a small kickoff event at CSU Sacramento.

“Very few people come over here and talk to us,” said Jessica Hud, who’s been homeless for five years, and had been staying in the encampment on X and 10th Street for about seven months.

But like their housed neighbors — who in recent polls have expressed despair over the government’s handling of homelessness — many also say the situation is at its worst.

“I’ve lived in Sacramento all my life and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Rocknie Simon, Hud’s partner, who has been homeless for about 10 years.

Volunteers walk near a homeless camp in Sacramento during the city's point-in-time count of the unhoused population on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Volunteers walk near a homeless camp in Sacramento during the city’s point-in-time count of the unhoused population on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Why isn’t the state’s generous spending more visible on the state’s streets? 

Officials and advocates chalk it up to decades of disinvestment. ​In 2012, for example, the state began unwinding its redevelopment agencies, which were in charge of revitalizing “blighted” areas across the state.​ With the end of redevelopment came the end of the single largest source of non-federal money for affordable housing in the state, and California lawmakers didn’t begin to plug that hole until around 2019.

“We don’t fix a problem that’s been brewing since Vietnam and exacerbated over the last two decades by tech and other things in five years,” said Jennifer Loving, chief executive officer of Destination: Home, a homelessness nonprofit in San Jose. For every two people who are housed in her community, another three become homeless.

But if tracking data on how many people are homeless is difficult, tracking the payoff from billions of dollars the state is now spending to help them is even more challenging.

“I know (the governor) is frustrated, I know the Legislature is frustrated, the public is frustrated,” Assembly Budget Chairperson Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, said during a recent hearing. “We have appropriated billions and billions of dollars to this issue. And it’s not clear where we’ve made progress.”

The reason for the limited available data is, in part, because local entities serving people on the ground hadn’t always been required to report outcomes to the state, and no state body provided effective oversight of the myriad agencies that address homelessness, the State Auditor found. A slew of laws passed last year are supposed to change that.

This summer, using $5.6 million, the newly created Interagency Council on Homelessness is set to release a report detailing the outcomes of state spending between 2018 and 2021, to be followed by a final report in December. Newly appropriated dollars are tied to more stringent planning and reporting requirements: Cities and counties will set goals for the $2 billion they will receive over two years from the state to address homelessness, and about a fifth of that money will be set aside as bonus funds for those who meet their goals. 

Newly available metrics collected by local officials still reveal some information about how they are serving the homeless population. Over the course of 2020, for example, the state reported that local agencies served more than 246,000 people, and nearly 40% of them moved into some form of housing. (That number is higher than the one-night snapshot because someone may have been homeless at the start of the year, but housed by the end.) What the data doesn’t reveal is where people went, which types of programs worked better than others, or which service providers excelled and which ones fell behind.

“We’re in this state that’s driving the data revolution and it’s just not showing up in the homelessness field,” said Weare, from UC Berkeley.

“We have appropriated billions and billions of dollars to this issue. And it’s not clear where we’ve made progress.”

phil ting, chairperson of the assembly budget committee

Last summer, with a historic budget windfall, state lawmakers allocated $12 billion for homeleness, most of which hasn’t hit the streets. This year, they have an even bigger surplus, but the dearth of data is making it difficult to evaluate the additional spending Newsom proposed: $1.5 billion for temporary bridge housing and $500 million to deal with encampments, building on the $50 million in grants Newsom announced last week to shelter or rehouse 1,400 people now in camps.

“We’re stuck,” said Wendy Carrillo, a Democratic Assemblymember from Los Angeles who leads the state Assembly’s budget subcommittee that deals with homelessness. “We’re releasing this funding to be able to help address the issue, but in return, the data is not coming back fast enough for the Legislature to be able to make an informed decision as to, are we going to put more dollars into something, and does it work?”

Republican lawmakers have called for a special session to address homelessness parallel to the ongoing legislative session — an idea they say hasn’t gotten any traction in the supermajority Democratic legislature.

“When you have a special session, you can put your entire focus on that. So we’re hoping that the governor will take up a special look at that perhaps that comes on the heels of the homeless count,” said state Sen. Patricia Bates, a Republican from Laguna Hills.

On the ground in Sacramento

“Counting people is different from helping people get off the streets,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at the Feb. 23 kickoff event, before about 600 volunteers fanned out. The last point-in-time survey found at least 5,500 homeless people in the county in 2019, a number he expects will only increase this year.

“Here in the city and county of Sacramento, we are committed to making housing and shelter a human and a legal right, and mental health care and treatment as a human and legal right,” he continued. “That has to be our commitment coming out of this point-in-time count.”

Steinberg was referring to an ordinance he introduced last November that would require the city to create enough housing units or temporary shelter spaces for everyone who needs them by 2023. If a person living on the street turned down two available housing or shelter options, they would be compelled to come inside. But if those spots weren’t made available, the person could sue the city.

“Counting people is different from helping people get off the streets.”

sacramento mayor darrell steinberg

The proposal, which met fierce opposition from some advocates for favoring shelter over housing, is now undergoing a legal review. Local voters may be asked to consider two similar ballot initiatives in November. Their aim: to clear the growing number of encampments sprouting across the city, which are not only upsetting housed residents and businesses, but threatening the safety of the people living there. The city would have to dramatically increase options for people to go indoors, which it has thus far failed to do.

Muhammad, who declined to provide his last name, warms his hands at a fire next to his tent in Sacramento. Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Muhammad, who declined to provide his last name, warms his hands at a fire next to his tent in Sacramento. Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Sacramento fire spokesperson Keith Wade told CalMatters the department responds to fires in homeless encampments on a daily basis. Fires with the potential to damage critical infrastructure — like the one under the Highway 50 on-ramp — are more rare, he said. CalTrans had to shut down the on-ramp “for a while” to ensure it could hold up oncoming traffic. The fire remains under investigation, but Wade said it was likely arson.

“It’s not uncommon for one person experiencing homelessness who has a disagreement or some sort of issue with another to burn that person’s personal items because that’s the one thing that person has left in this world,” he said.

Vasquez, who was displaced from the camp, doesn’t know what comes next. He said he had been living in an apartment before becoming homeless, but could no longer afford rent after his roommates moved out.

“What can we do?” he asked. “Start all over again, with nothing. We had nothing, and we start with nothing.”

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