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On Homelessness: Fragile, Compelling Success

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

The 21st Century Alliance is focused on leveraging best practices to solve California’s great challenges. We don’t hear much about best practices when it comes to homelessness – particularly success at scale. It’s no wonder, as the number of unhoused people in California increased more than 30% between 2012 and 2020. But there are best practices to be found, both here at home and farther afield. Perhaps the greatest homelessness success story among American big cities is Houston, which has reduced chronic homelessness by 60 percent since 2012. Here in California, in 2021 Bakersfield became the first California city to reduce chronic homelessness to “functional zero”. That city’s effort is part of perhaps the best example of addressing homelessness at scale: Built for Zero, the brainchild of MacArthur Genius Award winner Rosanne Haggerty. As we’ve delved into these all-too-rare successes, some lessons emerge for California:

  • You can’t house without housing. California has systematically underbuilt housing for years. We have prioritized building codes, high wages and local control – policies that might be good in isolation. Yet, as Ezra Klein writes, taken together they amount to “a staggering failure to prioritize building affordable housing affordably and quickly, given that the alternative is often people sleeping in tents or on street corners."

  • Coordination is critical: It’s a point that sounds obvious, but in fact systematic coordination in addressing homelessness is more the exception than the rule. Leaders in Houston underscore the importance of coordinated efforts across government, business and nonprofit service providers. The same is true in Bakersfield and other Built for Zero communities, where government, nonprofits and shelters layer multiple datasets to address the needs of particular unhoused individuals.

  • A focus on chronic homelessness can yield meaningful progress for the most vulnerable. Neither Houston nor Bakersfield solved poverty or the affordable housing challenge. They focused on the “chronically homeless”: those living on the streets for more than a year or those repeatedly homeless.

The New York Times calls Houston’s work on homelessness a “fragile, compelling success,” but that should not be mistaken for faint praise. It is a reminder both of the complexity of homelessness, and of the fact that success is indeed possible.

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