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California Spent $17 Billion on Homelessness. It’s Not Working.

A few lessons to be learned here. When municipalities don't support building new housing, shelter becomes a commodity in short supply, and prices/rents rise creating ops for homelessness.

If you make it easier for homeless people to live in your town or provide more benefits, they will come.

No easier answers here, but Calif is spending money the wrong way?

California Spent $17 Billion on Homelessness. It’s Not Working.

The Wood Street encampment for years drew people with nowhere to live, until a fire made finding a solution an urgent—and frustrating—task

June 2, 2023 12:01 am ET

OAKLAND, Calif.—City firefighters arrived midmorning at a homeless camp on Wood Street to quell a fire spreading across a tinderbox landscape of discarded furniture, debris, abandoned cars and dwellings fashioned from tents, tarps and plywood.

Fire crews struggled for more than two hours. There weren’t enough hydrants because no one was ever supposed to live on the stretch of dirt that snaked beneath Interstate 880, the freeway connecting Oakland and San Jose. Yet over six years, the property had become home to more than 300 homeless people—addicts, the mentally ill and those unable to get a grip on Bay Area housing with a warehouse job or a construction gig.

The fire last summer spit thick black smoke that temporarily halted commuters. Soon after, the California Department of Transportation, which owned most of the land, announced it would start tearing down the makeshift shelters. The July 11 fire appeared to have done what state and local officials had failed to do—force a decision to clear the camp.

A monthslong legal and bureaucratic battle followed, in a display of the humanitarian, practical and political forces trying, with limited effect, to solve the urban homeless problem.

The number of homeless people in California grew about 50% between 2014 and 2022. The state, which accounts for 12% of the U.S. population, has about half of the nation’s unsheltered homeless, an estimated 115,000 people, according to federal and state data last year. It also has among the highest average rent and median home prices in the U.S.

Former resident Tommy Goodluck built a two-story dwelling at the Wood Street camp that before its removal had a view of the Oakland skyline.

Lydia Blumberg at the Wood Street camp last fall before she was evicted.

State officials said it was the city’s responsibility to house people kicked off the Wood Street property. Oakland officials said they didn’t have enough shelter beds. Residents fortunate enough to get a federal housing voucher struggled to find an apartment they could afford with it. Many of the drug addicts and mentally ill on Wood Street wanted nothing more than to be left alone.

About 30 people filed a federal lawsuit against the state transportation department, known as Caltrans, and the city of Oakland for the right to continue living at the Wood Street encampment. They were among those who initially rejected spots at shelters because they couldn’t bring their pets or all their belongings.

“You have to give up everything you own just for a place to sleep for a night,” said Jaz Colibri. She was one of those who filed the lawsuit, which after months of back and forth was decided against her and the others.

By March, those who resisted authorities were still living on a sliver of the property that the Oakland Fire Department called unsafe, unsanitary and which posed “a range of public health risks for the unhoused people living there, neighbors in the surrounding area, and the firefighters who respond to incidents 24 hours a day.”

The fire department said it had been called to 816 fires at homeless camps in Oakland during the year that ended in October 2022, including 63 around the Wood Street camp. Fires spread out of control mostly by people cooking with propane tanks or burning materials for heat, the department said.

“When you have these homes that are fabricated, and you have open flames, there’s going to be fire incidents,” Reginald Freeman, then the city fire chief, said after the fire last summer.

Former Wood Street resident Mike Andrade fixing a bicycle wheel last August.

California spent a record $17 billion combating homelessness in the past four fiscal years. For the state budget year starting in July, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed another $3.7 billion.

Voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have some of the largest homeless populations in California, were unhappy enough about it to approve taxes costing them billions of dollars to fund anti-homelessness programs and housing in recent years. So far, cost overruns and delays have left little to show for the money.

State and local officials have bickered over responsibility. Mr. Newsom late last year threatened to withhold funding from local governments that he believed weren’t attacking the problem aggressively enough. That included programs to move squatters, willingly or not.

Local leaders said the Newsom administration hasn’t provided enough stable funding for programs to treat and house the homeless. “These systems are made effective when they are tethered to the resources necessary,” said LaTonda Simmons, Oakland’s acting homelessness administrator. “Oakland and many other cities are experiencing the same sort of bottleneck in terms of being able to move people through the system.”

“Our North Star is getting as many people out of encampments as quickly as possible, because nothing healthy, nothing safe happens there,” said Jason Elliott, a deputy chief of staff to the Democratic governor. “Their refusal to take [offers of housing] does not create an inalienable right to…continue to live in unsafe circumstances.”

Talya Husbands-Hankin, an activist who often delivers food and supplies to residents, said authorities are stuck in a cycle of clearing out encampments and scattering people who find another spot to gather.

“Money is being wasted,” she said, “consistently pushing people around.”

Hidden away

Wood Street became home to many people largely because no one ever forced them to leave. After being shooed by authorities from streets and parks, they found what seemed a permanent hideaway tucked beneath a freeway in an industrial zone of building-material suppliers and sound studios.

John Janosko recalled Oakland police in 2016 telling him to “go to Wood Street and you’d be safe. No one would bother you down there.” Word got around, and the number of people grew.

Jason Faustini, who had lived at Wood Street for more than three years, standing last August near what had been the camp's community garden. Former resident Kejua Elliott getting a hug from activist Zelda Eser on Sept. 26 last year, the start of the second phase of evictions.

The city brought in portable toilets. Shower trucks stopped by weekly, and some residents rigged up their own, connecting garden hoses to a nearby public water line and using a generator to heat the water.

Kelly Thompson, a 75-year-old Vietnam veteran, moved his 30-foot RV there in 2018. He said his $1,200 a month in Social Security benefits wasn’t enough to afford permanent housing.

During the pandemic, federal officials advised against dispersing homeless encampments, Wood Street grew larger still. There were holiday parties and, at some point, art shows, a communal food pantry and a closet with free goods donated by volunteers.

It was far from idyllic. Kellie Castillo, who moved to Wood Street in 2020, worked two jobs—arranging product displays at a big-box store and cleaning houses—which together didn’t pay enough to rent an apartment. “I’m getting older and I can’t take another winter,” the 60-year-old said last summer. In her trailer, cold nights were miserable no matter how many blankets she piled on. “You feel like your fingers are going to break off,” she said.

Kellie Castillo worked full time but couldn’t afford to rent an apartment and had lived at the Wood Street camp.

Some residents said the fires were terrifying, because they often broke out close to their shelters. “Many times you would hear popping and look out your window and see the whole area is lit red,” said Mr. Thompson.

After a tour of the camp in April last year, Newsom compared Wood Street with a scene from “Mad Max,” the post-apocalypse movie. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” the governor later said.

When Caltrans announced it would start tearing down Wood Street after the fire last July, residents filed their federal lawsuit, arguing that Oakland didn’t have a plan to house them beyond overnight group shelters. “Caltrans’ abrupt closure of the camp is irresponsible,” the suit said. “It appears to be just another photo opportunity” for the governor.

On July 22, U.S. District Judge William Orrick issued a temporary restraining order to the state agency. He said Caltrans had laid out a compelling case to dismantle the Wood Street encampment but ordered a delay to give residents time to find alternative housing and for local officials to beef up the city’s shelter plans.

During a court hearing a month later, Caltrans officials said they wanted to close the camp immediately and that the city was responsible for housing displaced residents. An Oakland representative said the city had just 40 shelter spaces available and needed more time. An Alameda County representative told the judge that the county had neither adequate staff nor resources to help.

Wood Street representatives made their case over a spotty video call connection. The number of beds offered by the city would house less than half the people who needed them, they said.

Wood Street resident Tamara Roselli, seated second from left, homeless advocate Jenn Oakley, standing, and resident Kelly Thompson, seated, during a live-streamed court hearing last August about eviction orders.

The judge said he had tried to delay the clearing of the encampment long enough for all parties to try to find a solution that “recognizes the humanity” of Wood Street residents. But their time was up, Orrick said.

“Everyone wants to wash their hands of us,” Wood Street resident Lydia Blumberg said after the hearing.

‘Lonely success’

Residents collected their belongings late last summer ahead of the first day of the first phase of Wood Street’s dismantling. Husbands-Hankin, the homeless advocate, showed up with ice, lemonade and a bag of burritos.

On the eve of the Sept. 8 closure, Wood Street resident Ron McGowan commuted to San Francisco for a job helping tear down a Mötley Crüe concert stage and transform it into a set for Lady Gaga. The 51-year-old said he returned in the morning around the same time workers in yellow safety vests arrived. Bulldozers demolished the shelters, and trucks hauled away the remnants.

By early January, most of the state-owned property was behind barricades, the dirt raked and leveled and its former inhabitants long gone. It took until early May for Oakland officials to clear the remaining tents and RVs from adjoining city-owned land.

Castillo was lucky. An outreach worker she was friendly with saw news of a limited number of emergency housing vouchers being released for people who weren’t on the yearslong waiting list for a federal Section 8 subsidy. The subsidy program, which is large enough to serve only about a quarter of those who qualify, allows low-income families to pay no more than 30% of their income on rent with the government paying the balance.

Castillo was elated to learn she was eligible for a $1,695-a-month housing voucher. It took about four months to secure an apartment she could afford. “It’s like a lonely success,” said Castillo, who worries about her former Wood Street neighbors.

Thompson, the Vietnam veteran, has been relocating his RV from one street to the next since last September. He recently offered to help homeless friends tow their broken-down vehicles out of the Wood Street neighborhood, but they didn’t have a good idea where to take them.

“Nobody knows where to go,” he said.

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