Reducing homelessness in California

A panel at the CalMatters Ideas Festival debates how to reduce homelessness without punishing poverty

A CalMatters panel discussion on homelessness featuring state Sen. Scott Wiener; Alex Visotzky, senior California policy fellow with the National Alliance to End Homelessness; Robynne Rose-Haymer, vice president of Capitol Impact; and Margot Kushel, professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, during CalMatters’ Ideas Festival at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento on June 6. (Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local)

This story on reducing homelessness in California was produced by CalMatters, an independent public journalism venture covering California politics and government. For more info, visit

By Jenna Peterson (for CalMatters)

California housing advocates and lawmakers say more affordable housing and increases in state and federal funding would address the state’s homelessness crisis. But some disagree on the underlying causes the state should be focusing on. 

“We have an emergency that we have created by allowing for very tunnel vision, selfish, healthy policy for it,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said on the last day of the CalMatters Ideas Festival (June 5-6) during a panel exploring ideas on reducing homelessness in California.

Wiener and other panelists, in a discussion moderated by CalMatters homelessness reporter Marisa Kendall, discussed the consequences of clearing homeless encampments — particularly in light of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could make it legal for municipalities to criminalize camping in public

Alex Visotzky, senior California policy fellow at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said people experiencing homelessness need access to affordable housing and rental subsidies — not tougher restrictions. 

“Are we doing this because it is the solution to homelessness, or are we doing it because our instincts are to punish people who are in poverty for their poverty?” Visotzky said. “Our instincts are to build on all the racism that’s been baked into our housing system for centuries.” 

Robynne Rose-Haymer, vice president of Capitol Impact, serves as a “lived expertise” advisory board representative for the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative and has experienced homelessness. She said that many residents are hesitant to leave encampments because they find community there. 

“Those are their friends,” she said. “Those are their neighbors. This is the community that they know where the services are. They understand the bus routes and they know how to get to the places that they need. So by rooting people out forcibly, it does nothing to build trust. In fact, it harms the very services that we are paying billions of dollars to stand up.” 

The most recent statewide count tallied more than 181,000 unhoused Californians last year — 28 percent of the national total and up nearly 40 percent from five years ago.

More recent local counts have yielded mixed results. Sacramento County’s released Tuesday found that the county’s unhoused population dropped 29 percent in the last two years and the unsheltered population, which includes people who live in vehicles, dropped 41 percent. But in Contra Costa County, the unhoused population increased by 19 percent. 

California has been focusing money and attention on homeless people struggling with mental health and substance abuse. Some lawmakers want to depart from the state’s longstanding “housing first” approach, which requires shelters to accept people regardless of their alcohol and drug use, and allow state money to go to shelters with “sober housing.”  

The “Pallet,” or Genesis Shelter, Chico’s emergency non-congregate housing site. (Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters)

But Margot Kushel — professor of medicine at UCSF and director of the Benioff homelessness initiative — said that housing should be offered first, then voluntary treatment, to get homeless people off the streets. 

“We know how to treat people, you have to start, though, with the housing,” she said.

Rose-Haymer said it is important to also address the systemic issues that contribute to homelessness. 

“These are solvable problems if we fix the systems that feed the actual issue,” she said. “I would encourage us to not think about how do we build more housing and ignore workforce development, or how do we solve the zoning problem and not think about the educational institutions that are qualifying people for workforce development?”

In response to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget cuts to homelessness and housing programs, including $1 billion to local governments, Wiener said it is a high priority for the Senate and the Assembly to keep that funding intact, despite the $28 billion budget shortfall. 

“I can never guarantee success,” Wiener said, but Newsom doesn’t philosophically oppose more money for housing. “It’s just how to rebalance the budget this year.” 

Visotzky countered that the state has failed to make ongoing commitments to fund housing, which he said is necessary to meet the needs of unhoused individuals. 

“It’s hard to imagine that our schools would be successful at educating our kids if they had to come hat in hand to Sacramento every year to say, ‘Hey, we need money to keep our doors open,’” he said. “But that’s basically what we ask our social service agencies that work with folks experiencing homelessness to do.”

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