California is spending more than ever to reduce homelessness, but it’s current strategy is not working

California’s homeless crisis continues to get worse, with the public increasingly — and understandably — frustrated by the ever-present tent cities that envelop public parks, at aggressive panhandlers and shocking stories of sexual abuse and open-air drug markets in homeless encampments. Despite the chaos, the state seems incapable of getting the situation under control.

At the direction of federal authorities, California has undertaken a costly and futile effort to count the number of homeless — currently estimated at around 161,000. That’s the population of a decent-sized city, but it’s likely the numbers are much higher. Counting the homeless and helping them also are two very different matters.

Unlike many of California’s intractable problems, homelessness gains a high profile because of the disorder it spreads throughout our communities. Voters are frustrated with the government’s handling of the matter even as they express compassion for people living on the streets, according to a recent poll by the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Business Council Institute.

The public gets it, but the state’s leadership is stuck in its same old groove of throwing money at the problem. In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that directed all relevant state agencies to embrace “accountability metrics.” That’s a sensible goal, but gaining accountability from bureaucracies cannot be accomplished by edict.

A new report from California’s Interagency Council on Homelessness finds that the state has spent $10 billion addressing the homeless problem over the last three years. The state wasn’t able to help the majority of homeless people and lost track of the bulk of those it helped. Large portions of those who received aid returned to the streets.

On the good side, the state reports helping 571,000 homeless people and adding 17,000 shelter beds. But that’s not a particularly large number of new beds, which is no surprise given the state’s propensity for building homeless shelters at a cost of $800,000 or more a unit. Reports suggest that even as it helped people, the state was overwhelmed with new people who needed services.

Regarding the new 253-page state report, CalMatters touched on a key point: “What the report did not address is how the state can spend its money more effectively.” That encapsulates our never-ending frustration: California is locked into big-spending bureaucratic approaches to homelessness — and every other problem, for that matter — but rarely analyzes how it spends taxpayer money. This isn’t just about saving money, but boosting the effectiveness of that money

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As the publication explained, Republicans have called for an audit of homeless spending — and now even Democrats are demanding more accountability measures from local and state governments. Although we typically look askance at public spending, this editorial board agrees that dealing with homelessness is a legitimate government function. But these governments need to rely more on nonprofit agencies rather than state agencies and on providing temporary shelter rather than building costly new units.

The state also needs to rethink its official “housing first” policies, which attempt to provide permanent housing without first dealing with the mental-health and substance-abuse issues that have pushed people onto the streets. We’ll continue to look at practical alternatives, but we can’t ignore the obvious: California is spending more than ever to reduce homelessness, yet it’s current strategy simply is not working.

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