‘The math ain’t mathing’: Majority of cities worried about their ability to reduce homelessness long-term

Apr 18, 2024

By Kayla Sherwood, senior communications and media manager, and Brian Hendershot, Cal Cities Advocate managing editor

Nine in ten cities are concerned about their ability to provide homelessness services long-term. In many cities, the demand for housing and services is outpacing their efforts to connect people to services and safe, affordable housing.

That’s according to a survey of 205 cities conducted by Cal Cities last month. The results of the survey were unveiled during a panel on Wednesday with Mayors Karen Goh (Bakersfield) and Erica A. Stewart (San Luis Obispo).

The study found that 85% of cities have implemented programs to prevent and reduce homelessness. Over 90% of those cities worry about their ability to continue to provide these services long-term. About one in three cities expect a budget deficit next year.

Cities are competing for limited services and devoting scarce resources to securing grant funding. But even cities like Bakersfield that have made tangible progress reducing homelessness are feeling the pinch. The city is one of the few cities in the nation that brought its chronic homelessness down to “ functional zero.”

“We're spending $6 million a year to operate [our navigation center] — one of others that are in our community,” Goh said. “We receive $4 million from HHAP. The math ain't mathing.”

For every six people placed in permanent housing locally, Goh says, another ten become newly homeless.

Cities cited a lack of ongoing funding as the top barrier to reducing homelessness. More than eight in 10 cities say inconsistent state funding impacts their ability to effectively serve their unhoused residents.

“If we can create ongoing services to help people through the challenges they're going through, then we don't have to continue to look at these tiny, tiny pilot programs,” Stewart said. “Every moment we are looking for grants, we are not doing the job that we should be doing because we are here to provide core services for the public.”

According to the survey, cities would use ongoing funding to provide more supportive services, speed up affordable housing development, increase shelter space, expand rent subsidy programs, and further invest in outreach.

“We need the state to invest in programs and services that are proven to work, and that investment is going to require more than one-time funds,” Stewart told Cal Cities before the panel. “The lack of ongoing state funding limits every city in California, and here in San Luis Obispo, this has inhibited us from making a dent to prevent and reduce homelessness.”

The survey underscores the urgent need for a permanent home in the state budget to reduce homelessness and boost the supply of affordable housing. Over two-thirds of cities report that the number of people entering homelessness is exceeding their ability to reach a net reduction in homelessness.

“Our state has 12% of the nation's entire population but we have 50% of the unsheltered population in California,” said Goh. “Clearly, California has a systemic problem.”

But there’s hope, she noted. The Legislature has brought forward bills to reduce homelessness. All levels of government are in this together. They have to be.

“The complexity of what we're dealing with — the scope, the scale, really, there is not one single solution,” Goh said. “We would continue to invest in prevention in diversion, permanent housing — all the services that we have discussed. All the services needed to triage the crisis to address the root causes of mental health, substance use, and then the issues of housing.”