California’s homeless crisis is at a crossroads. Will $12B fix it?

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Tent-lined streets with belongings scattered everywhere. Infected wounds with bugs living inside. A man who hasn’t showered in over a decade. An 80-year-old woman who can’t feed herself. People who ride the metro rail lines because the trains are a safer place to sleep.

California’s homeless problem has been out of control for decades. Then came COVID-19.

The result has been a deadly combination of medical crisis, human hopelessness and bureaucratic red tape as the state, reeling from the virus’ impacts, tries to rebound with a plan for the 160,000 homeless people. That number eclipses any other state – and accounts for half of the country’s entire unsheltered population.

A severe shelter and housing shortage is becoming not just a social services problem, but a political one as well, unlike anywhere in the country – thrusting the problem before the eyes of Californians who see people suffering and dying on the streets each day.

“There isn’t real clear leadership, there isn’t clear accountability,” says John Maceri, who heads The People Concern, one of the largest homeless relief organizations in the Los Angeles area – the epicenter of the crisis. “You have this very fractured system. It really is like herding cats.”

The state is at a critical crossroads in its post-pandemic attempt to curb its homeless crisis and the rest of the nation is watching. Gov. Gavin Newsom has earmarked $12 billion – which he called a historic budget to combat homelessness. COVID-19 protections are nearing an end, meaning evictions will soon be allowed and could worsen the problem.

And all of it is happening while a lawsuit threatens to reshape how Los Angeles – and perhaps the state – has tackled this issue after a federal judge issued a scathing rebuke of the decades of failed plans, leadership and promises to fix this problem.

Layers of housing bureaucracy and years without solving homelessness 

Solving the cycle of homelessness has befuddled policymakers for decades. Money is thrown at it, as are new ideas. Yet more and more people end up living on the streets.

For about 30 years, Karen Barnes has worked to help people experiencing homelessness in the state. Many of those she and her team have worked with suffer from extreme mental illness and other illnesses, from out-of-control diabetes to sexually transmitted diseases and wounds and abscesses that went untreated for such a long time that maggots have infested them.

“The fact that people are somehow able to survive out there for that long is you know, amazing, but they have to be really tough,” said Barnes, who helps lead an outreach team at PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) in Los Angeles aiming to help those experiencing homelessness on transit lines. “These are humans and we can’t lose sight of that.”

More: California tops list of states with the most unsheltered homeless people

She listed out different stories from those living on the streets and the successes she’s seen with finding a person shelter or care, including one man who suffered from a severe mental illness and was later found with terminal cancer. They helped him get into hospice care, where he passed away.

“We went to give him a birthday cake and had a little birthday party with him right before,” Barnes said. “At least the end wasn’t, you know, what it could have been. He was he was happy at the end. That made it worth it.”

It can take years sometimes to get someone into stable housing due to the distrust within the homeless community and concerns about being burned by a system that has failed them, she said. Many shelters are rough places and come with rules that include curfews. Instead, some choose to stay in a place they know, even if that means sleeping outside, without a bed or any shelter – something California’s climate makes more possible than other areas of the country.

The state accounts for more than half of the country’s unsheltered population, according to a report released in January from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While New York has a large number of people experiencing homelessness, the state offers shelter to 95% of those people. In contrast, about 70% of those experiencing homelessness in California lived outside or in vehicles.

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At its core, experts, advocates and state officials say a handful of issues have made tackling the difficult problem even harder: a high cost of living, lack of affordable housing, scattershot effort with too many…



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