Many People in Our Communities Lack a Home for the Holidays

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, groups across the US are seeking to raise awareness of our neighbors who perhaps can’t share in the joy of this holiday because they don’t have a place to call home. As part of National Hunger and Homeless Awareness week, we’re highlighting a few facts about people in our communities who are homeless.

Many people in our communities don’t have stable housing. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that over 100,000 Californians are homeless, but this figure is probably greatly understated. This estimate only includes the number of people living in shelters or places “not meant for human habitation,” such as cars, parks, and sidewalks, who were counted on one day of the year by volunteers across the state. The problem with a “point-in-time” estimate is that it fails to capture all the people who fall into homelessness during a year, and street counts invariably miss some people, according to HUD. What’s more, this estimate excludes people who were living in motels or with friends or family because they lacked a place of their own. California’s K-12 schools identified over 300,000 students alone who were living in motels, doubled up with other families, residing in shelters, or living on the street during the 2013-14 school year, which suggests that the HUD estimate misses many homeless families.

Homelessness may be on the rise in some communities. Some communities appear to have seen an increase in homelessness in recent years in spite of the economic recovery. The number of people living in shelters or on the streets in Los Angeles, for example, rose steadily between 2009 and 2015, a fact that has garnered widespread public attention. Also, figures compiled by HUD show an uptick in the number of people without homes in other parts of California, but experts caution against reporting year-to-year changes in the number of homeless people in smaller geographic areas because it’s difficult to determine whether or not they reflect changes in local efforts to count people without homes.

Job loss is a key cause of homelessness. Recent surveys conducted throughout the greater San Francisco Bay Area found that the most common reason people fell into homelessness was that they lost their job; this factor was reported by between 25 percent and 44 percent of homeless individuals surveyed in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Monterey counties. In contrast, just 16 percent of homeless people in Marin reported that job loss was to blame. Among women, the need to escape domestic violence also contributes to homelessness, according to national research.

A notable share of people experiencing homelessness work. Although many people who are homeless lost their housing after losing their job, a surprising share of homeless people manage to work. More than one in four homeless people in Santa Cruz and Marin counties had jobs, as did nearly one in five in Santa Clara and Monterey counties.

Many people who are homeless and unemployed are looking for jobs. Over half of unemployed homeless individuals in Santa Clara County and nearly half in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties were looking for work, as were over a third of those in Marin County. Although many people who are homeless report wanting to work, they face many obstacles to finding a job, such as a lack of transportation to get to interviews, no permanent address to put on applications or phone number at which to receive calls from prospective employers, and a lack of access to shower facilities and interview-appropriate clothing. Other barriers include the need for drug or alcohol treatment, physical or mental health problems, disabilities, and a criminal record.

California’s economic recovery is not broad-based. The large number of Californians who can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads is yet another indication that the benefits of our growing economy are failing to reach many. Millions of Californians continue to struggle to meet their basic needs, even after several years of steady job gains, as we discuss here. One key challenge is that wages have failed to fully rebound from the recession for all but the highest-paid workers at the same time that rents have skyrocketed in many parts of the state, severely stretching families’ budgets.

The right policy choices can help more people share in California’s prosperity. Making sure that all Californians have a decent place to call home will require a significant, multifaceted effort by federal, state, and local policymakers to help people access affordable housing and good, family-sustaining jobs. Here are a few helpful steps that lawmakers could take to begin reducing homelessness in California:

  • Federal policymakers could restore housing vouchers that were eliminated after recent spending cuts. Federal Housing Choice Vouchers allow families with low incomes to afford modest housing in the private market and are an effective tool for helping homeless families with children find stable housing. But federal resources for these vouchers have not kept pace with the growing need in California. As Congress finalizes 2016 funding bills over the next few weeks, policymakers could restore the vouchers eliminated in recent years and direct a large share of them to families experiencing homelessness.
  • State policymakers could broaden the reach of the CalWORKs Housing Support Program (HSP). Established last year, this program helps parents participating in welfare-to-work to find stable housing through a strategy called “rapid rehousing.” This approach aims to put a roof over families’ heads as quickly as possible so as to reduce the negative impact of prolonged homelessness. Rapid rehousing is based on the premise that it’s easier for people to overcome obstacles to financial stability, like unemployment, once they have a stable place to live. County human services agencies receive over 4,000 requests for assistance from homeless families every month. Such substantial need is unsurprising given that CalWORKs grants fall short of providing enough support to cover fair market rent in many parts of the state. Although the HSP has already helped over 6,000 parents and children find permanent homes and is currently assisting more than 17,000 additional parents and children in finding housing, according to updated figures from CWDA, additional funding is needed to reach all CalWORKs families who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
  • Local policymakers could develop comprehensive plans for reducing homelessness that include evidence-based best practices. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has compiled a database of strategies that local jurisdictions can adopt. One promising strategy is called “coordinated entry,” which requires that every local agency serving people at risk of or experiencing homelessness use a consistent process for addressing clients’ housing needs. In addition, local plans for reducing homelessness should prioritize prevention, which is typically more cost-effective, and eliminate counterproductive laws that criminalize homelessness without addressing the root causes of the problem.

Homelessness is a major challenge facing California, but with the right public policies, more families can be home for the holidays – and beyond. This would truly be something we could all be grateful for.

— Alissa Anderson