On July 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a $12 billion funding package to address homelessness—the largest single sum a US state has ever allocated toward the crisis. The package earmarks funding for a range of services including housing development, mental health care, sanitation and improving safety on streets and in parks. It’s part of a broader economic stimulus package to help California recover from the pandemic.
About $5.75 billion—roughly half the total spending—will go toward creating desperately needed new housing, primarily through the Project Homekey initiative.
Authorized in July 2020, Project Homekey converts empty or abandoned buildings—offices, hotels and motels, college dorms or vacation homes—into temporary and permanent housing for homeless residents. The project has so far created about 6,000 new housing units at a cost of $850 million, funded mostly through President Trump’s first COVID relief bill.
It was a followup to April 2020’s Project Roomkey, which helped move some of the state’s rapidly swelling population of unhoused people into hotels and motels as they faced heightened risk of contracting and spreading COVID. Cities and counties across California leased about 16,500 rooms, sheltering over 22,000 people.
In the 10 years prior to the pandemic, California only built an average of about 2,800 affordable housing units annually. Advocates and officials alike have praised the pandemic-era initiatives, and President Biden is replicating the Homekey approach nationally. His own COVID relief bill included $5 billion for new housing units throughout the US.
Despite the massive amount of funding California is committing to it, Project Homekey is a one-time expenditure.
But there is an obvious problem: Despite the massive amount of funding California is committing to it, Project Homekey represents a one-time expenditure. Housing providers will need recurring funding in order to maintain buildings and provide support services for their formerly unhoused residents.
The state’s spending package also devotes nearly $4 billion to addressing mental health needs among people experiencing homelessness. This includes the state’s largest-ever increase in tailored “service-enhanced mental health housing”—where support services are available onsite or by referral. This money will also expand housing for people with behavioral health issues—such as those under conservatorship—as well as for homeless veterans.
Finally, the package allocated over $2 billion to “safe and clean streets,” the bulk of which will go to city and county governments. But it’s unclear whether the goal is truly to make streets and parks safer and cleaner for the people who actually shelter in them. The package specifies “Encampment resolution” and “Hazardous materials removal.”
Filter has reported on the harmful efforts of local governments—in California as well as states such as Minnesota and Colorado—in “sweeping” homeless encampments. In what amounts to raid and theft, police and other local authorities are tasked with destroying the shelters and confiscating their residents’ belongings. So people often lose not just their tents, but their clothing, medical supplies, identifying documents and personal belongings.
The state of California has yet to provide clarity on how this portion of the funding will be used.