Sandoval: Homelessness is a policy choice
PATH team members conducted the point-in-time count on Jan. 24, 2023. The count is a HUD-mandated survey of unhoused communities that determines federal funding for localities. Photo courtesy of PATH.

    When we see our neighbors living unsheltered along our sidewalks or parks, it’s tempting to tell ourselves it was their own decisions that put them there. But overall, homelessness is not a personal choice. It’s a policy choice, made and solidified by decisions and indecision at every level over decades, that has led to San Jose’s current homelessness crisis.

    When voters are surveyed across the state, one of the most important issues to them is homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. Voters know that, ultimately, affordable housing is the lasting solution to homelessness. This urgency rings true in elections from the federal level down to the city council. As this crisis continues to impact communities across the state, our elected leaders continue to respond and react to growing concern for our unhoused neighbors.

    One of the central challenges in the fight to end homelessness is that no one government body is solely responsible for addressing it. While most people understand the various responsibilities of our layers of government, most might not understand the role each plays in addressing homelessness.

    Those at the most local level—our city councilmembers, mayor and county supervisors—have been responding to this crisis in public for years. They are on the frontlines. These elected leaders are funding solutions and listening to constituents as they continue to grow frustrated with the seeming lack of progress on this issue. But who else should we hold accountable?

    While this isn’t meant to be a civics lesson, it could be helpful to understand what service providers and clients deal with in terms of government solutions. Simply put, the federal government provides housing vouchers, the state provides funding for services and housing, the county provides social services and cities make land use decisions such as where housing is built.

    The federal government created the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. While the need for housing in the United States has changed substantially since 1937, this mission is still a necessary one. HUD officially incorporated homelessness into its efforts in 1987. One of the most vital resources the federal government provides is housing choice vouchers, commonly known as Section 8.

    A housing choice voucher provides assistance for “very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.” These vouchers allow individuals to find a rental unit or get connected to permanent supportive housing.

    While this is an invaluable resource, the federal government could be doing much more. The program that administers these vouchers, commonly known as Section 8, is one of the few federal assistance programs where supply is not responsive to demand. Eligible participants can wait for over a decade to receive their voucher. Imagine if Social Security or Medicare operated in this way.

    Recent years have shown a slow but steadily growing awareness in the federal government. Officials just released a plan to reduce homelessness by 25% by 2025 and many are hopeful there will be a particular focus on aiding the Golden State, where we face one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation.

    Here in California, the state government historically allowed cities and counties to wriggle out of their obligations to build housing apace with population growth. Only in the last few years, after decades of a worsening crisis, has the state government permitted actual consequences for localities failing to meet their housing plans.

    The state doesn’t just mandate though—it has spent a significant amount of funding on homelessness in the last decade. During the pandemic the state set up two innovative programs to learn from, Project Roomkey and Homekey, which used hotels as shelters and converted them to housing, respectively. These types of creative solutions need to continue to reduce homelessness in the state and bring shelter and housing online faster.

    While I understand people are frustrated with the amount of funding spent and the increases in homelessness, we need long-term investment to address this decades long issue. There is no dedicated funding stream to support solutions to homelessness. What is truly needed is a consistent funding stream, as providers like PATH must work with fluctuating state budgets and adjust to changing political winds.

    A recent study by the Corporation for Supportive Housing found the state needs to spend at least $8.1 billion annually by 2035 to create enough housing and services to end homelessness. That may sound like an enormous amount, but it’s less than 3% of the state’s 2022 budget, less than a tenth of the state’s annual education investments and less than half of the current proportion budgeted for the state prison system.

    When it comes to the county and city, both play a role in planning for more housing and ensuring there are social services and programs to access in order to support them through their challenges beyond housing. Let us continue to push for solutions at the local level, but not lose sight of those government bodies that play significant roles.

    The complexities of these layers of government are certainly a challenge, but also an opportunity to work together. We have many elected officials in our region that are listening, collaborating and working toward bringing more solutions to our communities. We have to continue to hold them accountable and use our collective voice to demand long-term solutions, and the funding necessary to achieve them.

    San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is a regional director at PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. Her columns appear every fourth Monday of every other month. Contact Laura at [email protected]

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