Audit: California should track homeless spending, set policy

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: An aerial view of San Francisco's first temporary sanctioned tent encampment for the homeless on May 18, 2020 in San Francisco, California. After public outrage mounted over a surge of homeless people and tents fil

California has spent $13 billion in the last three years to tackle a massive homelessness problem likely to worsen with the pandemic, yet its approach is so fragmented and incomplete as to hinder efforts at getting people into stable housing, the state auditor said in a report released Thursday.

The office of state auditor Elaine Howle said that the state continues to have the largest homeless population in the nation "likely in part because its approach to addressing homelessness has been disjointed."

The office recommended that California copy other states in charging a single entity to oversee efforts or be responsible for developing a statewide strategic plan.

Sprawling tent encampments on city streets and along highways and river banks remain a common sight in California despite efforts to move unhoused residents to hotel rooms during the pandemic. About 150,000 people experiencing homelessness live in the state, including about half the country’s estimated 211,000 residents living unsheltered on the streets or in vehicles.

California lacks a centralized way to track spending to tackle its homelessness problem, so it's unable to determine where efforts are duplicative, the auditor said. Howle recommended that the Legislature grant more authority and responsibility to the Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council, also known as the homeless council, which was created in 2017 in part to coordinate funding and establish partnerships with stakeholders to develop strategies to end homelessness.

It has yet to do either, she said.

"Given the magnitude of the homelessness crisis in California and the amount of funding the state and federal governments commit to combatting it, the state needs to ensure that its system for addressing problems ... is coherent, consistent, and effective," Howle said in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature.

The auditor’s office identified at least nine state agencies spending $13 billion through 41 programs to address homelessness in the past three years. The programs included money to acquire and build new housing and relocation assistance to targeted help for certain populations, such as veterans, youth and victims of domestic violence.

But without the ability to track spending, it’s difficult to identify duplications or even to find out what works or doesn’t work, according to the report.

The social services department, for example, made $95 million available in fiscal year 2019 for financial help and housing services for people who are or about to become homeless. The same year, the housing and community development department also had $30 million available for housing relocation and stabilization services.

"As a result, there could be duplication of services between these two programs," the report noted.

The homeless council said it lacks the authority to compel state agencies to make policy or share spending data.

Last year, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have created a uniform data-collection system on homelessness spending, saying the measure was duplicative and would create additional and unnecessary data collection costs.

His office did not provide immediate comment on the audit.

Howle said the state homeless council should also develop guidance and best practices for "continuums of care," which are regional organizations that receive money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to battle homelessness.

Her office's review of five continuums of care found varying weaknesses, including insufficient annual analyses to determine "whether it has enough service providers to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness" and directed corresponding counties work to do so.

The Fresno Madera Continuum of Care disagreed with some of the recommendations, saying it had a good idea of where resources are lacking. It also declined a recommendation to establish a dedicated hotline for people to call.

The counties of Mendocino, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara generally agreed with the audit's recommendations, the report said.