On Nov. 3, calling the current approach unacceptable, Governor Gavin Newsom immediately halted more than $1 billion in Homelessness, Housing, Assistance and Prevention (HHAP) grants to local governments and continuums of care in the state.
The HHAP program is part of a $15.3 billion multiyear effort to significantly reduce homelessness in California. So far, the state has provided more than $1.5 billion in flexible emergency aid through the Homeless Emergency Aid Program and the first two rounds of HHAP funding.
Now, to receive further funding, recipients must create a Homelessness Action Plan that addresses, in detail, local actions to prevent and reduce the number of individuals experiencing homelessness.
This is the first time the state is requiring accountability. Since 2017, the Governor’s Office has given “lip service” to holding local governments and providers accountable for the public dollars they receive from the state. Advocates and critics have long called for it.
In his Nov. 3 statement, Newsom said, “As a state, we are failing to meet the urgency of the moment. Collectively, these [current] plans set a goal to reduce street homelessness 2% statewide by 2024. At this pace, it would take decades to significantly curb homelessness in California…
“This approach is simply unacceptable. Everyone has to do better…cities, counties and the state.”
However, doing better in the current system will not solve the housing crisis. There must be a paradigm shift. Housing must be declared a right, and the real solution, long term, is to implement a social housing approach locally and nationally.
Why do millions of people have housing problems? Why are there hundreds of thousands of unhoused people in the United States? At the beginning of this year, there were 569,334 people nationwide on the streets or in shelters according to the official “point in time count.”
The fundamental cause of homelessness is the failure of governments to implement the human right to housing. Adequate housing was recognized as part of the right to an adequate standard of living in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Article 11.1 of the 1966 International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Although the United States has signed on to these international resolutions, housing is treated as a commodity rather than a right. The contradiction between the need for housing and the role of housing as a commodity has created an ongoing affordability crisis.
It is time to recognize housing as a right at the federal, state and local levels. Nationally, there is a shortage of seven million affordable homes. In Fresno County, there is a shortage of 35,000 affordable homes.
Acknowledging housing as a right would be one way to hold entities such as landlords and city governments legally responsible for evictions, a lack of sufficient affordable housing and the criminalization of the homeless. Declaring housing as a right would also provide the necessary budgetary and oversight resources to solve the affordability crisis.
We can build a national movement for housing as a human right. Efforts are already under way.
In June, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D–Wash.) and Grace Meng (D–N.Y.) introduced the Housing Is a Human Right Act, which is intended to commit funds, services and support to address gaps in housing and homeless services.
In Oakland, Moms 4 Housing has been working to introduce legislation that asserts the right to housing.
In Sacramento, city leaders are discussing how to establish housing as a legal obligation.
If any of these efforts succeed, that could start a trend toward shifting the responsibility for housing production from the market to governing bodies.
Declaring housing as a human right could be a first step to solving the housing crisis, but that must be accompanied with adequate funding, timelines for progress and ways to enforce compliance.
A small number of regions and nations have enacted housing as a human right.
Scotland passed legislation declaring housing as a right, which made local governments responsible for providing housing. There has been a reduction in the unhoused population, but the program has failed to meet its goals due to economic restraints.
France and South Africa have codified the right to housing with varied results, due to the lack of adequate resources and awareness.
Establishing housing as a right can only succeed with necessary start-up funding and by applying a social housing approach.
Social housing is owned and operated by a government or a nonprofit agency. The agency that owns the housing uses revenue from rent and leases to pay for construction costs and maintenance. Social housing provides housing for people of all income levels and is a proven way to provide affordable housing.
There have been successful examples in the United States and abroad in places like Singapore and Vienna, Austria. More than 100 years ago, Vienna began a social housing program to deal with a housing crisis that occurred after World War I.
Now, 73% of Vienna’s residents are renters and more than 60% live in some form of social housing. It is high-quality housing connected to public transportation and many other amenities. Rents are regulated and subsidized for low-income people, and rental agreements have no expiration dates.
In Vienna, there is no visible homelessness, renters have financial security and neighborhoods remain sustainable. The city currently owns, manages and indirectly controls nearly half a million housing units. Social housing is found throughout the city where people of all incomes, backgrounds and identities live in harmony.
Here in Fresno, no new shelter beds are being provided. Shelters remain full, with less than two vacancies per week. The city and county still refuse to provide basic sanitation services to thousands of unhoused persons, with the exception of two mobile shower/restroom units.
The Fresno Police Department continues to criminalize unhoused people. They continue to harass them, force people to move and throw away personal belongings, including basic survival gear such as sleeping bags, blankets and tents.
The 2022 Point in Time Count conducted by the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care (FMCoC) identified 4,216 persons experiencing homelessness in Fresno and Madera counties, of which 2,338 were unsheltered. Many, including the FMCoC, consider this to be an undercount.
Most of the unhoused are in the city of Fresno. As winter approaches, Fresno maintains its current practice of opening only one warming center for unhoused people at the Ted C. Wills Community Center in the Tower District. Another warming center is operated by the Fresno Mission near the Poverello House.
Both centers follow the stated policy of only opening when temperatures reach a low of 36 degrees. It is a well-established medical fact that exposure to temperatures well above 36 degrees all night can cause hypothermia and even death, especially among the elderly.
Fresno City Council Member Miguel Arias briefly recognized this fact when, at a recent Council meeting, he proposed to increase the temperature for opening the center to 40 degrees, as well as extending the operating hours. Sadly, he tabled his own motion, calling into question why he brought it up in the first place.
Fresno County, disgracefully, operates no warming centers.
It’s not as if the City cannot afford to operate more warming centers and keep them open all winter. The City has a significant budget surplus of $40 million and is set to receive more funding for homeless services from the federal government.
The question is not one of money but rather a lack of morality among elected officials in the city and county.
The City of Fresno will receive approximately $11.7 million of federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Community Planning and Development to fund programs and projects to implement the City’s housing and community development strategies to benefit low- and moderate-income persons.
The funds will be sub-awarded to programs and projects operated by City departments or eligible nonprofit organizations to address the most critical community needs outlined in the City’s adopted five-year Consolidated Plan (www.fresno.gov/housing).
The City’s stated goals for using these funds are as follows:
- Provide assistance for the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless through safe low-barrier shelter options, housing-first collaborations and associated supportive services.
- Improve access to affordable housing for low‐income and special needs households by partnering with interested developers to increase development of low-income and affordable housing in high opportunity areas, and by promoting the preservation and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing units.
- Promote quality of life and neighborhood revitalization through improvements to current public infrastructure and facilities, and by closing gaps in areas with aging, lower quality or nonexistent public infrastructure and facilities.
- Provide services to low-income and special needs households that develop human capital and improve quality of life.
- Provide services to residents and housing providers to advance fair housing.
- Plan and administer funding for community development, housing and homelessness activities with improved transparency, increased community involvement and full compliance with federal regulations.
As we continue to follow the money, we will examine how these public dollars are actually spent.