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What would it take to end homelessness in California?

California represents a quarter of the U.S. homeless population. A suite of policies, including zoning changes and rental assistance, could end that crisis.

What would it take to end homelessness in California?
[Illustration: Daniel Salo/Fast Company]
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Before the pandemic, around 160,000 Californians were homeless on any given night—accounting for more than a quarter of the nation’s homeless population. The number is likely higher now, and one report projects that COVID-19-related job losses could cause chronic homelessness to jump by 68% in the state in the next four years. But a new road map argues that it’s possible to move aggressively in the other direction—and outlines exactly what could happen to end homelessness in California over the next decade.

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“For several years now, we have recognized that housing policy has been really developed in a reactive way and a very piecemeal way, with short-term solutions for a long-term problem,” says Lisa Hershey, executive director of Housing California, a nonprofit that partnered with the California Housing Partnership and hundreds of other stakeholders to create the new report, called Roadmap Home 2030. “We recognized the need for a long-term vision, really clear, audacious goals, and a road map to get us there.”

The plan outlines 57 different evidence-based policies to reach four major goals simultaneously: creating 1.2 million affordable homes, protecting 1 million low-income renter households from losing their homes, closing racial equity gaps in housing and homelessness, and fully ending homelessness. “We’ve tested what the combination of policy solutions is that would get us to that exact place,” says Hershey. It’s possible that another combination could also work, she says, “but it needs to be something that comprehensive, that in-depth, and that synergistic.”

[Illustration: Daniel Salo/Fast Company]
A dozen of the policies should be prioritized this year, the report suggests, including a $10 billion statewide housing bond to fund new affordable housing; ending exclusionary zoning to make it possible to build taller buildings with more apartments in more neighborhoods; providing billions to local governments to help fund specific solutions for homelessness, such as rental assistance or permanent housing and services; and using the savings from prisons that are closing in the state to help people who were formerly incarcerated get housing. More than half of the priority policies for 2021 are already in bills in the legislature. The full list of 57 recommended policies, including six federal policies, is detailed in the report.

Implementing the total suite of policies would cost the state around $17.9 billion a year, a comparable amount to what California spends on higher education. (Not ending homelessness is also expensive for the government; permanent supportive housing actually can cost less than what taxpayers spend on hospitalizations, jail time, and other costs for people experiencing chronic homelessness.) The plan suggests making billionaires pay more in taxes, ending corporate tax loopholes, and other tax changes to help pay for programs at the scale needed to actually solve the problem. Of course, all of this will be politically challenging to pull off. The groups that created the report are advocating for it now with legislators. “What’s most important is that everyone gets behind the idea that California, for the first time, has to have a long-term, comprehensive plan with clear goals of ending homelessness and housing low-income people who are extremely cost-burdened and at risk of becoming homeless,” says Matt Schwartz, president and CEO of the California Housing Partnership. “And that it needs to be comprehensive and implemented over a series of years and not reactive.”

Across the country, a growing number of cities are implementing new strategies to end chronic homelessness, recognizing that it isn’t enough just to chip away against the problem and maintain a status quo of more than half a million Americans sleeping in homeless shelters, on the street, or on friends’ couches. Though some aspects of the plan for California are specific to the state, the road map could also serve as a template for other states to take on the same goals. “We see a lot of opportunities to potentially scale what we’re proposing in California, or for other states to be able to use parts of it or all of it as a model,” says Hershey.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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