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Audit: California should track homeless spending, set policy

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FILE - In this May 21, 2020, file photo, rectangles designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging social distancing line a city-sanctioned homeless encampment at San Francisco's Civic Center. California has spent $13 billion in the last three years to tackle a massive homelessness problem likely to worsen with the pandemic, yet its approach is so disjointed and incomplete as to hinder efforts at getting people into stable housing, the state auditor said in a report released Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SAN FRANCISCO – California has spent $13 billion in the last three years to tackle a massive homelessness problem likely to worsen with the pandemic, yet its approach is so fragmented and incomplete as to hinder efforts at getting people into stable housing, the state auditor said in a report released Thursday.

The office of State Auditor Elaine Howle said that California continues to have the largest homeless population in the nation “likely in part because its approach to addressing homelessness has been disjointed."

The office recommended that California copy other states in charging a single entity to oversee efforts or be responsible for developing a statewide strategic plan. The state lacks a centralized way to track spending, so it’s unable to determine where efforts are duplicative, the auditor said.

Sprawling tent encampments on city streets and along highways and river banks remain a common sight in California despite efforts to move unhoused residents to hotel rooms during the pandemic. About 150,000 people experiencing homelessness live in the state, including about half the country’s estimated 211,000 residents living unsheltered on the streets or in vehicles.

Affordable housing is so scarce in the state that even when a person experiencing homelessness finds a place to live, several more become homeless and authorities can't keep up despite raising taxes and approving bonds for more beds, homes and other services.

Howle recommended that the Legislature grant more authority and responsibility to the Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council, also known as the homeless council, which was created in 2017 in part to coordinate funding and establish partnerships with stakeholders to develop strategies to end homelessness.

It has yet to do either, she said.

“Given the magnitude of the homelessness crisis in California and the amount of funding the state and federal governments commit to combatting it, the state needs to ensure that its system for addressing problems ... is coherent, consistent, and effective,” Howle said in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature.

Newsom, a Democrat, has made homelessness a priority and launched novel ways to get people into shelters and permanent housing, including the conversion of motels and other properties into rooms. But in critiquing the governor's plans for spending on homelessness last year, the Legislative Analyst's Office said it “falls short of articulating a clear strategy for curbing homelessness in California.”

The auditor’s office identified at least nine state agencies spending $13 billion through 41 programs to address homelessness in the past three years. The programs included money to acquire and build new housing and relocation assistance to targeted help for certain populations, such as veterans, youth and victims of domestic violence.

But without the ability to track spending, it’s difficult to identify duplications or even to find out what works or doesn’t work, according to the report.

The social services department, for example, made $95 million available in fiscal year 2019 for financial help and housing services for people who are or about to become homeless. The same year, the housing and community development department also had $30 million available for housing relocation and stabilization services.

The homeless council said it lacks the authority to compel state agencies to make policy or share spending data.

Newsom's office said Thursday that the council has been readying an action plan as well as a homeless data integration system to drive statewide, data-driven decisions. Both should launch next month.

Spokesman Russ Heimerich said the governor's office has been having conversations with lawmakers to strengthen the council's authority and remains willing “to work with the Legislature on anything else that would move California closer to preventing and ending homelessness."

The audit's findings disappointed, but did not surprise, legislators on both sides.

“This is so critically important, and we’ve been wasting billions of dollars and not helping the poor folks who are suffering,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen of Tehama, ranking Republican on the budget committee.

Assemblymember David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco who also chairs the housing and community development committee, agreed with the need for a long-term strategy. There are too many policy silos, without sufficient coordination among health, corrections, judiciary and housing agencies, he said.

“This is hard work,” he said. “I think everyone understands it needs to happen.”

Howle said the state homeless council should also develop guidance and best practices for “continuums of care," which are regional organizations that receive money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to battle homelessness.

Her office's review of five continuums of care found varying weaknesses, including insufficient annual analyses to determine “whether it has enough service providers to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness" and directed corresponding counties work to do so.

The Fresno Madera Continuum of Care disagreed with some of the recommendations, saying it had a good idea of where resources are lacking. It also declined a recommendation to establish a dedicated hotline for people to call.

The counties of Mendocino, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara generally agreed with the audit's recommendations, the report said.