Homelessness is a regional crisis

Bay Area residents didn’t really need an economic analysis to tell them that homelessness is a regional crisis. Anyone who’s visited downtown San Francisco or walked by Santa Rosa’s Depot Park knows it. But that doesn’t mean the analysis is useless. On the contrary, the recently released study by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute clarifies how much it might cost to end the crisis.

The headline-grabbing figure from the report was $12.7 billion. That’s how much the researchers estimate it would cost to house everyone who lacks housing in the region — an estimated 28,200 people per the 2017 point-in-time count. The study counts nine counties in the Bay Area, including Sonoma County.

Housing is an important first step to helping homeless residents transition to stable lives, but there’s other work. The report conservatively estimates that half of homeless residents require services such as job training as well as mental, behavioral and physical health care. That would cost an additional $3.5 billion over 10 years.

The report doesn’t estimate cleanup costs after camps are shutdown, but factor those in, too.

There is nothing close to $12.7 billion available to address homelessness in the Bay Area at this time. And deciding how to spend what money there is can be challenging. A panel meeting today in Santa Rosa has about $7 million in one-time state money to spend, with competing applications including $1.6 million for a new roof on the city’s main homeless shelter, $2 million to convert a defunct senior center into a shelter and $2.5 million toward the purchase of a motel for conversion into a shelter. Some worthwhile projects will go unfunded.

The Bay Area Council researchers were smart to look at homelessness as a regional crisis that requires a regional solution. If one city or county goes it alone, investing heavily in programs, it risks either of becoming a magnet for homeless people who want services or displacing homeless residents into other communities. Neither outcome would be good.

That regional approach could get a boost this week. The Bay Area Council will convene a meeting with Oakland’s mayor, local business leaders, homeless advocates and more. More people need to be at the table, but it’s a start.

The state has a role to play, too, with more investment and structural reforms. California has more than two dozen programs to help the homeless spread across seven state agencies, departments and executive offices. Realigning homeless services under a single department or agency could improve the efficiency and efficacy of spending.

Consolidated leadership could also improve transparency. The Bay Area Council’s researchers noted that tracking how much the region spends on homelessness is difficult. Cities and counties don’t have uniform and robust policies to report how public dollars are spent and whether they are meeting benchmarks.

Indeed, the lack of reliable data about homelessness is a constant hurdle in developing and assessing programs. The report therefore encourages creation of a regional database to track homeless residents throughout the Bay Area to better assess which are getting services where and how they move around the region.

No doubt other experts and analysts would come up with different numbers and ideas about what must be done. As a region and a state, we must work out the details, but the magnitude of the problem is now undeniable.

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