Can Local Governments fix Homelessness?
I have been mulling some numbers I have seen in the news recently:
- 42% of poll respondents say local governments should fix homelessness.
- 3,654 new homes have been mandated in my small city of 29,500 people in the next eight years.
- $4.7 billion of discretionary state government spending for homelessness last year in California
An online Grid/Harris Poll survey of 1,050 respondents conducted Jan. 6-9, 2023 found that 42% said local governments should fix homelessness (40% said federal and state, 18% said private sources, with a +/- 4 points margin of error). (1)
As one who has spent the last 20 years in and around the budgeting process in small towns and cities throughout the country here is the real kicker for me: The group with the bleakest outlook on homelessness in their area: rural Americans.
In another survey nearly three-quarters of Americans agreed that “excessive homelessness is a sign that local government officials aren’t doing enough to support their residents.” Only 17 percent said it would get better and 40 percent said it would stay about the same in their area in the next five years
Local governments are active on many fronts, but the problems are far larger than they can address with limited municipal budgets and are caused by macro-economic factors over which local communities have little impact. Helping support housing construction — including zoning changes, tax abatements, and reforming permit processes, are useful as far as they go.
There are also grants specifically to help local governments provide services and housing to people living in homeless encampments. But the basic problem has been seen across the state — homeless services are reach many people, but the numbers keep rising because more people are getting pushed into homelessness than pulled out.
My own city, Monterey CA, is running a survey to collect community input on how to build new housing projects. We are required by law to plan for building 3,654 new homes over the next eight years to accommodate current and projected need. The survey will help city officials plan where new housing, employment and shopping should be located. There is little vacant land in the city to build new housing developments and the risk of flooding and wildfires in certain areas. (2)
The California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) said that historically, local governments have provided most of the homelessness assistance, relying in part on federal and state funding. In the State’s most recent budget, there was $4.7 billion worth of discretionary spending on homelessness, up from $515 million in the 2018 budget, according to analysis. (3)
Since the pandemic, California had begun an effort to fund local programs and invest in state-run programs. Taking advantage of increased federal funding from covid relief legislation, including Homekey, which gave grants to local governments and agencies to purchase buildings, largely hotels, in order to convert into housing, and Project Roomkey, which paid for housing that allowed people experiencing homelessness to safely isolate.
“It became so apparent that this is happening everywhere,” said Shannon McConville, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “By most accounts, it’s about housing costs. High housing costs and rents is really the underlying structural issues why we’ve seen this explosion in homelessness.”
The goal of California’s housing efforts is to follow through on its “Housing First” approach to homelessness — to get people into homes. But that is made difficult not just by disjointed or underfunded programs, but by the sheer cost of housing in California and the difficulty in building more.
A letter in the local Monterey County edition of NextDoor.com highlights the problem: “. . . It’s really an absurd concept to believe that everyone on the peninsula has to be wealthy to live and work here. Not everyone makes $80.00+, an hour. In fact, most of the people who work on the peninsula are laborers, waiters, spa workers/ beauticians, receptionists, teachers, clerks, and county workers… most only average $30,000., to $40,000., a year where do you think they should live? Commute from King City to work at a restaurant on the wharf?” (4)
I call the question: Can Local Governments fix Homelessness?
No, of course not. The scale of the problem, its causes and solutions are far beyond anything that can be solved with limited local government funding.
Local governments do what they can to ease the immediate pain of homelessness. Libraries provide refuge, internet access and safety. Senior day services, after-school, food banks, safe overnight parking, hot meal and other local programs all help. Streamlined permit processes, updated zoning, state and federally funded grant programs help create opportunities for housing development.
What can local governments do?
As a good budgeting proponent I believe that local governments can do a better job of informing their residents and stakeholders about the real limits of local resources and what drives spending priorities in their communities.
Many residents and businesses are motivated to act on homelessness, but have little information or direction to work with. Local governments are well positioned to provide this desperately needed leadership and understanding.
Drilling down into the monolithic construct that “homelessness” has evolved into is critical. The best solutions for the mentally unsound, addicted, jobless, and families with minor children vary widely, and one size does not fit all.
Great communications and transparency in budgeting and finance can help engage the community in finding the resources and will-power long-term solutions for this seemingly overwhelming issue in our society.
(1) 42% of Americans say it’s up to local government to fix homelessness, Leah Askarinam, Senior Editor, and Anna Deen, Data Visualization Reporter, Published in Grid.com, Jan 19, 2023
(2) City of Monterey asking for community input on future housing projects, Derrick Ow, KION-TV, March 5, 2023
(3) Is California’s billion-dollar homelessness strategy working? Matthew Zeitlin, Grid.com, March 6, 2023
(4) from an exchange on NextDoor.com March 6, 2023
The Practical Pragmatic Budgeting Handbook is available free at McCannConsulting.org. Still in development, this on-line publication contains concrete real-world budgeting milestones and best practices focused on the needs of smaller agencies.