Editorial: Should California force cities to house homeless people?

A formerly homeless man makes his bed in a Santa Monica studio apartment
A formerly homeless man makes his bed in a Santa Monica studio apartment.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Homelessness may be a particularly grim problem in the city and county of L.A., but there is a desperate scramble for housing and shelter throughout the state as well. According to the 2019 homeless count, about 151,000 people are homeless in California, and most of them are unsheltered.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide task force on homelessness has come up with a proposal that it believes will compel local jurisdictions to house most of those people. And if the jurisdictions fail, the proposal would empower state courts to step in and do it for them.

In other words, cities and counties would be under a legal mandate to come up with a plan “to house the vast majority of their homeless populations within an aggressive but reasonable period of time.” The co-chairs of the task force, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, argue that housing homeless people is no less an obligation of the state than providing public education or enforcing civil rights laws. And as their report notes, moral suasion has not created nearly enough housing and shelter.

We welcome a plan to reduce homelessness that is big and uncompromising, as well as the attention and urgency the governor has given to this issue. And we would love to see a proposal like this work. But, as with any plan this dramatic, there are problems we see from the outset that the task force and the state must resolve.

The legal mandate would become law only after an amendment to the state Constitution. The voters would decide that by ballot measure — as soon as this November, if Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas have their way.

But where would the money for necessary shelters and permanent housing and rental subsidies come from? The amendment would put obligations on local governments but wouldn’t force the state to help pay the cost, and that’s a huge potential problem. Not every jurisdiction will have enough funding to finance all the housing and shelter it needs. For example, officials in the Los Angeles mayor’s office say they support a state plan that would call for more housing and shelter for homeless people but point out that they already are financing millions of dollars in transitional shelters and supportive housing. If they are required to fund more, they will need more money to do so.

Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas say that jurisdictions will be able to tap into state funds. But shouldn’t that be spelled out?

Another crucial issue is what portion of the homeless population they would be required to shelter or house, and by when. The task force’s plan leaves that question to be answered by the Legislature, which would set the benchmarks for the mandate. Those benchmarks would be tied to a jurisdiction’s homeless count, requiring that city or county provide a percentage of its homeless population with housing within a certain number of years.

But what’s the right percentage? If the percentage is set too low, homelessness will endure at crisis levels. If it’s too high, it could be unachievable. As it is, 130 homeless people are housed every day in L.A. County, while another 150 fall into homelessness. So the pace of housing has to pick up considerably.

And what is the right mix of permanent housing and temporary shelter? Should a municipality be allowed to fulfill its housing obligation by providing nothing but shelters? That gets every homeless person off the street — but it still leaves them homeless, which is not a long-term solution.

Here’s another concern: If the voters say yes to a legal mandate, will it be clear that the reduction in the homeless population must be accomplished responsibly, by providing reasonable housing? Will it be clear that cities cannot meet their numbers by pushing homeless people into neighboring jurisdictions? There’s anecdotal evidence that this already happens in parts of Los Angeles County. Steinberg said in an interview that he was open to creating “severe” new penalties to guard against that.

And if cities fail to fulfill their housing and shelter requirements in a timely fashion, they could get hauled into court, where a judge would then take over the housing plans. How much authority would the courts have to force communities to site, fund and build housing? The task force suggests they could appropriate resources, override siting restrictions and “effectuate any actions” to move jurisdictions toward compliance. Is it reasonable to give state judges, with little or no expertise in housing policy, such power and all that it would entail?

The task force made some smart recommendations in its interim report to the governor, including a call for more state spending on homelessness prevention programs and rental subsidies. But there are many questions still unanswered about the group’s core recommendation for a new legal mandate to provide housing. Voters need to see more specifics before they should be asked to decide its fate.