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Homeless Populations Are Surging in the West — Even as Federal Spending Rises

December 17, 2019by David Lightman
A homeless person sleeps on a bench in Los Angeles. Homeless populations are growing in the West. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON — More and more people are living on the streets, in makeshift encampments or their cars — what the federal government calls “other places not suitable for human habitation.”

While Washington, D.C., lawmakers are sympathetic and ready to increase funding, they’re also unable to find enough resources to handle the growing crisis.

In California areas such as Fresno and San Luis Obispo, 4 out of 5 homeless people are regarded as ‘unsheltered,” meaning they are usually living in vehicles, abandoned buildings and other places people would not ordinarily stay.

Nationwide, 35% of homeless people last year were in unsheltered locations, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development data. HUD says unsheltered homelessness refers to “people whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people.”

Federal lawmakers understand the gravity of the problem, and the issue got unusually unified political support this year. House and Senate budget-writers quietly agreed on more spending, and advocacy groups dealing with the homeless day by day generally praise the effort.

“The programs are great,” said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Congress wants to spend about $2.8 billion in fiscal 2020, the 12 month period that began Oct. 1, on homeless assistance grants, the major funding source to help the homeless. Final votes are likely sometime this month on what would be about a 6% increase over last year.

Virtually all that money, though, is to maintain and improve previously funded projects.

That’s barely enough to keep pace, particularly in high-cost California. “The cost of building is so high, the level the funding is not sufficient,” said John Parvensky, acting executive director at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

He noted that the 6% increase would not be enough to cover rising rents in many places.

While it’s critical to spend to keep people from losing current housing, the current funding level makes it difficult to house people now on the streets or in emergency shelters, Parvensky said.

“The bottom line is that current HUD funding is very effective for those who are targeted — which are generally some of the more vulnerable and chronically homeless people and some families,” said Michael Ullman, National Homeless Information Project coordinator.

But stopping the flow of new people into homelessness, and the streets or shelters, is much more complex, he said. Ullman urged a “complete rethinking of the problem and the definition of homelessness.”

“The white upper class policy maker cannot fathom living 10 or 50 to a large room — maybe it’s not great, but it’s not homeless. And two-thirds of the people currently defined as homeless live in congregate housing,” he said.

Some progress has been made. The number of veterans experiencing homelessness dropped 5% in 2018. Also dropping was the number of people staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs.

Yet those who deal with the problems day after day understand Ullman’s concern.

“My hope is that some in our delegation understand the crisis in California, that the numbers are increasing dramatically in the West Coast in general,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.

“Congress overall gets reports from HUD and the National Alliance to End Homelessness that overall the numbers are down, except on the West Coast. But many advocates don’t believe it for a second.”

Here’s why:

Forty-seven percent of all unsheltered people in the country last year lived in California, the HUD data show. One-third of all homeless unaccompanied youths live in the state.

In Los Angeles, officials are able to provide housing for an estimated 150 new people a day. But an estimated 180 are coming into the system every day.

“Too often, folks are falling into homelessness faster than we can house them,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told Congress earlier this year.

The challenge is particularly tough in areas not used to seeing such ballooning homeless numbers.

Among major U. S. cities, the city of Fresno, Fresno County and Madera County had the highest percentage of homeless people who were unsheltered in the nation — 88.7% of them, according to HUD data. The next four highest percentages were also in California.

In Sacramento, Erlenbusch estimated 70% of homeless are unsheltered, up from 56% in 2017 and 40% in 2015.

Sacramento ranked fourth in percentage of homeless veterans in major cities who were unsheltered.

El Dorado County was tied for first with Clackamas County, Ore., among suburban areas in the number of chronically homeless people who were unsheltered, and second in the percentage of unsheltered suburban families.

Getting more funding or dramatic innovation means changing the political culture, and that will be difficult. In a nation’s capital that hears constantly about government programs that don’t work, there’s reluctance to fool with one that often does. Nor are many lawmakers well-schooled on problems far from their constituencies.

Asked if Washington is sensitive enough to West Coast problems, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who heads the House subcommittee that writes the housing spending bill, said, “I know what’s going on there, and I think a lot of my colleagues do and we have given homelessness a very prominent place in this bill.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, the top subcommittee Republican, was more circumspect, saying of whether Washington is familiar with the homeless crisis out West: “That’s a good question. I don’t have a good answer because I can’t tell you I’m an expert on what every state is doing.”

Homeless people lack the political clout of other interests; they don’t march down Pennsylvania Avenue or send delegations to visit members of Congress. What’s needed, advocates say, is more political pressure.

“We know this approach works and our country has seen the success of these efforts,” Joseph Horiye, Western region program vice president at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which promotes community programs, told Congress.

“We know that progress can be made when the federal government provides adequate resources.”

———

©2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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