Capitol Alert

Getting homeless people off California streets is tough. One lawmaker has an idea.

Homeless in Sacramento

Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless.
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Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless.

As housing costs soar across California, homelessness is increasing – especially in big cities – while it has shrunk in most of the nation.

The problem, seemingly intractable, must be addressed statewide, rather than just city-by-city, to make a real dent in the number of people sleeping on the streets, says San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu.

Chiu is making a major push this year for legislation and funding to address homelessness by fast-tracking housing, measuring public dollars spent by cities and counties to combat it and collecting data on services used such as emergency room visits and shelter stays.

“California is in the midst of the most intense homelessness crisis in our state’s history,” Chiu said. “Look at the streets of any major city in California. We’ve seen hepatitis A outbreaks in San Diego and Monterey, E. coli outbreaks on the American River. And natural disasters like wildfires and mudslides (are) exacerbating the (homelessness) crisis.

“Communities are crying out for a solution,” Chiu said.

Chiu is expected to unveil a pair of Assembly bills Monday. One seeks to fast-track construction of supportive housing for homeless people by allowing developers to bypass the lengthy approvals process for affordable housing, which often stalls under intense neighborhood opposition.

Supportive housing, a structure that offers homeless people subsidized housing tied to social support services and often a case manager, is seen by policymakers in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles as crucial in addressing root causes of chronic homelessness. Federal housing officials say the concept is the best way to quickly address the issue.

Under Chiu’s supportive housing bill, jointly authored by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Daly of Anaheim, to qualify for speedier approvals, developers would be required to set aside 35 percent of units in new affordable housing construction for homeless people, or 15 total units – whichever is greater. The other bill would require California to create a state database to compile information on how many people are homeless and what type of services they use, in part to better identify possible solutions to underlying problems such as mental illness and substance abuse.

The homelessness proposals are part of an emerging package of housing-related bills this year that seek to build on the 2017 housing package signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

Nearly 135,000 people experienced homelessness in California last year, according to the official 2017 tally from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, though experts say, and agency officials acknowledge, the number is likely higher. Cities and counties only count the homeless on one given day during the year, and can only include people they can see.

“This is imperfect science. It is a snapshot — a picture of homelessness,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the agency. “It’s fairly comprehensive, but it doesn’t look at the totality of homelessness.”

Homelessness has increased as the state grapples with an unprecedented housing shortage and affordability crisis, according to the federal housing agency.

“In many high-cost areas of our country, especially along the West Coast, the severe shortage of affordable housing is manifesting itself on our streets,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a statement last year. “With rents rising faster than incomes, we need to bring everybody to the table to produce more affordable housing and ease the pressure that is forcing too many of our neighbors into our shelters and onto our streets.”

Better data could help house people and enable them to access health care, food assistance and other public programs without having to navigate complicated bureaucracies.

“If we had real-time numbers, we’d be able to track the needs of Californians experiencing homelessness. We’d be able to see emergency room usage and inpatient hospital stays,” said Sharon Rapport, associate director for California policy at the Los Angeles-based Corporation for Supportive Housing. “Data also shows that supportive housing is an evidence-based intervention for the most vulnerable, people cycling between homelessness and institutionalized settings like hospitals and jails.”

Chiu and a trio of other lawmakers from San Diego and Alameda and Los Angeles County are also asking Brown to allocate $1 billion this year for housing and homelessness programs.

The four Democrats – Chiu and Assemblymen Todd Gloria of San Diego, Rob Bonta of Alameda and Mike Gipson of Carson – are requesting $500 million from budget reserves to fund affordable housing development. The money would help offset losses in value to the low-income housing tax credit program spurred by President Donald Trump’s tax overhaul.

The other $500 million would fund homelessness programs such as rental assistance and supportive housing.

Through a spokesman, Brown’s office declined to comment on the budget request.

Brown in 2016 signed legislation creating the “No Place Like Home” program, which allocates $2 billion from a state tax levied on high-income earners to pay for a range of mental health services.