California’s homeless population reaches an alarming high

One of California’s biggest issues continues to increase into 2021: the rising number of citizens who lack a place to call home. Despite the state’s extreme wealth, more than 150,000 of its residents sleep in shelters, cars or on the streets.

While the problem is most drastic in urban areas, homelessness is becoming more common in the state’s suburbs and rural towns. In many rural places around the country, the ongoing addiction epidemic strains the social safety net, which advocates say puts more rural people at risk of becoming homeless. At the city level, four of the top five American cities with the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness are in California: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Rosa and San Jose. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic still surging through these California cities, L.A. County called off their 2021 homeless count. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said, “There is no safe way to gather the 8,000 volunteers necessary,” to administer the count in a safe enough manner. 

Those experiencing homelessness are at extreme risk of transmission. The virus can grow and live on many surfaces such as metal, wood, plastic, stainless steel and more. Homeless people come into contact with these surfaces on a daily basis. Because many of them lack the necessary access to keep up with their cleanliness, the Centers for Disease Control Intervention created an interim guide for homeless service providers. 

The guide includes a list of items that should be given to homeless people to help reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. The supplies are soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, tissues, trash baskets, masks, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. 

In December, California officials attempted to house thousands of homeless people in hotel rooms, keeping them off of the streets and in rooms where they could maintain social distancing. This took place through Project Homekey, which draws from $600 million in mostly federal CARES Act funds to help support those who have no access to shelter. 

The project serves to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by ensuring a safety net around people who normally would be stuck outside, facing the risk of touching surfaces where the virus could be. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the program back in April, insisting that it would last long-term. His goal was to provide a safe place to shelter amidst the pandemic as well as issue a future option for permanent housing.   

After living in and out of tents and alleyways for three years, Gillette Christa of San Francisco and her pet dog finally found a comforting place to live. “It was like taking a load off,” she said, “We were able to finally rest.”     

In addition to the pandemic, California’s dramatic change in temperature this winter has severely impacted the homeless community, causing a bigger problem. 

Sacramento County declared last month an extreme weather warning, urging those outdoors to seek shelter immediately. But with few shelters readily available, the homeless suffered a rough couple of nights. Tent after tent was destroyed during the storm. 

“To me, it looks like they got hit by a tornado,” said Joe Smith, the Advocacy Director for Loaves and Fishes Charity. 

Similar circumstances took place in L.A. County. Despite the city’s typical warm temperatures, the winter months brought along rain, extreme winds and a freezing chill in the air. These conditions are deadly for the largest unhoused community in the nation, where over 35,000 homeless people reside.  

“Many people experiencing homelessness suffer from malnutrition and sleep deprivation, leading to some of them remaining out in the cold. Ultimately, they sometimes will die,” said Bobby Watts, the homeless council’s chief executive. A total of 28 homeless people in the Los Angeles area died in the past five years due to hypothermia.

Newsom said last month that he wants to dedicate billions of the 2021 budget toward addressing the state’s housing and homelessness crisis. The budget proposes $1.75 billion in new investments, including $750 million to continue Project Homekey. 

“In these darkest moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, this budget will help Californians with urgent action to address our immediate challenges and build towards our recovery,” Newsom said in his 2021-22 State Budget proposal to the Legislature.

Although the homeless crisis in California is far from being fixed, state officials expect a dramatic change in the future. With continuing action through Project Homekey and a safer way for health officials to aid the homeless, there will be more help available.