By Bob McCloskey
In a recent report from the Economic Roundtable, it is predicted that the “Covid-driven loss of jobs and employment income will cause the number of homeless unemployed workers to increase each year through 2023.” The largest numbers of unemployed are workers in retail stores, restaurants and bars, personal services and education. The low-wage workers in these industries are often in unstable housing circumstances during “normal” times.
Over the next four years, the pandemic recession caused homelessness is expected to increase by 68% in California. The number of unhoused is projected to increase by 131,000. Current estimates are that there are 150,000 unhoused individuals in California.
To address the current and impending crisis, elected officials should give financial incentives to landlords and lenders to avoid mass evictions by deferring payments and forgiving payments missed during the pandemic. To increase the supply of affordable housing now, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should fund rent subsidies for low-income families.
Subsidies for building affordable housing must be dramatically increased. State and local governments should establish housing trust funds and use some of the funds to buy empty commercial buildings and convert them to affordable housing.
It’s not as if there is no money to both address the current housing crisis and prevent a worsening crisis. A recent report from the office of State Auditor Elaine Howle states that California has spent $13 billion in the last three years to provide housing and services to the unhoused; that is $87,000 per unhoused person.
A document provided by the City of Fresno on Feb. 18 states that in the past 20 months, the City received $56,532,323 in funding for homelessness prevention and services. Fresno County received $37,674, 626, and the Fresno Housing Authority (FHA) received $37,315,800. The Fresno Madera Continuum of Care received $37,315,800. Total funding received is $157,622,750.
Let’s follow the money—well, not so fast. The auditor’s report states that California lacks a central way to track spending. The Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council was created in 2017 to coordinate funding. It has not yet done so.
“Given the magnitude of the homeless crisis and the amount of funding the state and federal government commit to combating it, the state needs to ensure there is a coherent, consistent and effective system,” said Howle. There are nine state agencies spending $13 billion through 41 programs to address homelessness in the past three years.
The programs included money to acquire and build new housing, relocation assistance and targeted help for veterans, youth and victims of domestic violence. The Homeless Council lacks the authority to compel state agencies to share spending data.
The auditor also said the state Homeless Council should develop guidelines and best practices for the “continuums of care.” Her office found insufficient analysis to determine “whether it has enough service providers to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness.”
The Fresno Madera Continuum of Care (FMCoC) is saying it has a good idea of where resources are lacking. It declined a recommendation to establish a dedicated hotline for unhoused people to call for shelter, something the unhoused and advocates have been demanding. The refusal to provide an 800 number proves that the FMCoC simply does not have enough service providers to meet the needs of the unhoused.
A section of the city’s report, “Housing and Homelessness Along the Continuum,” suggests a status quo response. In the past 15 years, the City, the County, the FHA and the FMCoC have done little to permanently solve the housing crisis for a number of reasons, including a lack of necessary funding. There have been enough state and federal grants to provide only minor stop-gap measures and to create the false impression that something significant is being done.
In 2015, a Housing First approach was developed and money was subsequently distributed into projects consistent with that approach. As mentioned in previous articles, the Housing First project has been fraught with incompetence and waste and has completely failed to create significant numbers of permanent housing units.
Another significant aspect of the “status quo” is to fund temporary shelters and other “band-aid” measures. In the past, the City, the County and the FMCoC have not attempted to permanently solve the problem in order to maximize continued and consistent state and federal funding, year after year, to homeless shelters and service providers.
In some cases, developers and contractors are recipients of this funding. The unhoused and advocates are not the only ones saying this. Fresno City Council Member Luis Chavez said that while working in City Hall for 10 years as a staffer and Council member, he’s seen a lot of plans on homelessness.
“The homeless issue has been a piggy bank for a limited number of organizations,” Chavez said. “They’ve had a monopoly on funding guarantees for too long, and that’s bred complacency.”
The difference now is that there is much more funding and a new opportunity to create permanent housing. Instead, the City is returning to the status quo. Of the $157.6 million now available, almost $90 million has been allocated, without any input from the unhoused or homeless advocates. The largest portion of the funding goes to emergency overnight shelters ($20,507,838). It is granted to the Fresno Mission/Sobering Center, the Poverello House and the Marjaree Mason Center.
Next, the City is allocating $19,580,585 to “Transition Housing, Rapid Rehousing, Rental Assistance, Bridge Housing, Tiny Homes, Pallet Shelters, Independent Living, Worker Dorms and Shared Housing.” Exact amounts to each program are not detailed nor is how much each service provider has received and what is provided.
The next category is affordable housing for which $9,252,018 is allocated. It includes homekey conversions, preserving affordable housing and landlord recruitments, as well as private projects and public projects. Another $7,911,180 goes to triage centers, with a 90-day stay limit, including Golden State Triage (50 beds), Bridgepoint Triage (30 beds), Homekey (327 beds, with 87 Project Offramp beds), Travel Inn Triage (60 beds) and MHS Hacienda Triage (50 beds).
Lastly, $2,409,626 is allocated for citywide homeless street response, which includes outreach, code enforcement, fire, sanitation, Project Offramp and prevention. Again, there is no detailed accounting of exactly how much each entity or project is receiving, making it difficult to follow the money. At this time, $67 million in funding remains unallocated.
Even though the City of Fresno has not yet provided detailed financial information requested through the California Public Records Act (CRPA), some general financial information was released by the City on Feb. 18. The Fresno city attorney did respond in a timely manner and requested an extension until March 22 to provide the data.
The Fresno County counsel, Daniel Cederborg, the highest-paid official in the county with an annual salary of $206,258, has failed to respond to the CPRA information request at all, a dereliction of his duty to the public and of his fiduciary responsibility. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors, which also received the CPRA request, has not ordered him to respond either.
Cederborg and the supervisors are a glaring example of the arrogance of power. However, they are not above the law. Legal enforcement might be required, and they will be tried in the court of public opinion.
Meanwhile, the uncivilized treatment of our fellow human beings continues. Every person should have the basic dignity of access to bathrooms and showers. The City and County should set up public restrooms throughout the city. Shower stalls could be set up in strategic locations. The City is adamant in its refusal to even do this. In turn, this begs some questions: Are city officials civilized? Are they blind to human suffering?
Another issue is the isolation, loneliness and mistreatment the tenants of the triage centers are getting. Some are in isolated areas with no access to Wi-Fi for social interaction. A tenant of a Turning Point triage center described the food there as “un-nutritious slop.” Breakfast is always sweet cookies or pastry and a Kool-Aid–type drink.
Although authorities brag about serving three meals a day at the center, the food served raises the issue that the unhoused have no access to healthy food and this severely impacts their overall health. It must be noted that these centers are recipients of our tax dollars.
We need to hold our elected officials accountable for the use of these funds and all of the state and federal funding received. We are a community, and our unhoused sisters and brothers are members of our community. Everyone needs to step up and raise our concerns about all these issues now.
On March 23rd the City responded to my information request with a 1,934 pages of documents related to funding and disbursements of State and Federal funds for the unhoused. We are analyzing that information and I will be reporting on it. The County has called the very same request too “broad” and has not provided any information yet. Unaccountable and unacceptable in my view.
Addendum: On March 23, the City responded to our information request with 1,934 pages of documents related to funding and disbursements of state and federal funds for the unhoused. We are analyzing that information. The County has called the same request too “broad” and has not provided any information yet.
Bob McCloskey is a retired union representative and homeless advocate.