Billions of dollars spent and homelessness continues to rise

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The number of homeless residents in Sonoma and other Bay Area counties has increased in recent years. Things continue to get worse, and it will cost far more than the state and localities have spent — and plan to spend — to provide the humanitarian assistance that homeless neighbors need.

The new tally is the preliminary result of the ‘snapshot’ tally of people living outdoors and in shelters taken on a single night earlier this year. The count found 2,893 homeless residents in Sonoma County, up 5.4% from the previous count in 2020, which found 2,745.

Sonoma County was not alone. Marin County’s homeless population jumped 8% and Contra Costa’s increased 35%. Napa County saw a 6.5% increase. Alameda, Santa Clara and Oakland counties also had more homeless people than two years ago.

San Francisco was the only bright spot – if you can call it that – with a slight 3.5% drop in numbers. That’s good for San Francisco, but it’s not a sustainable situation if homeless residents simply leave the city for surrounding communities.

Spot counting is not perfect. It is overnight and run by volunteers who might not find any homeless residents. It also doesn’t count people on the edge of homelessness or those crashing on a friend’s couch. Nonetheless, it is the best available metric for tracking how many people are living on the streets and in shelters over time.

Even with the numbers increasing more often than not, there is a silver lining. At the start of the pandemic, experts feared homelessness would skyrocket as the economy ground to a halt and COVID-19 disrupted everything. The state and federal governments have taken extraordinary steps to provide rental assistance and other assistance that likely prevented the worst outcomes.

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa together spent more than five times more on homelessness than before the pandemic.

Santa Rosa and Sebastopol recently opened secure parking lots, both despite vigorous opposition. Since they opened, at least anecdotally, complaints from neighbors have been few. Santa Rosa’s next goal should be to identify sites distributed throughout each council district for either safe parking or permitted camping. It’s fair to spread them all over the city.

Across the county, two Project Homekey supportive housing sites have opened, and three more are in the works. These sites – converted hotels – have had problems with crime and maintenance, but they are not insurmountable with sufficient ongoing funding.

Despite all of this, homelessness remains a highly visible humanitarian crisis whose side effects stress communities. Californians are fed up with the lack of substantial progress.

Shelters are a palliative measure that helps get people off the streets, but they are not enough. Supportive and long-term housing, not to mention housing assistance, is essential.

But leaders should consider programs that build on or are adjacent to the types already underway. Some of them won’t sit well with homeless advocates. For example, the governor called on the state to take a stronger hand with residents who suffer from mental or behavioral disorders. This doesn’t apply to all homeless Californians, maybe not even most, but it is a lot of people.

Long-term solutions require sustained funding for responsible programs that tackle the problem in many directions. The state and localities have spent tens of billions of dollars on homelessness and housing programs. The state has to spend tens of billions more on one-time costs like converting hotels and the long-term expenses to keep them running.

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