How effective are California's homelessness programs? State audit finds lack of tracking

Sacramento — A Tuesday state audit found that California spent $24 billion on homelessness over the past five years but didn't track whether it improved the condition. With makeshift tents dotting the streets and interrupting businesses in California's cities and villages, homelessness has become one of the most aggravating and apparently intractable concerns. About 30% of the nation's homeless live in California, where 171,000 live.  

State auditor's report: California doesn't have accurate statistics to determine why the problem didn't improve in many areas despite spending billions on more than 30 homeless and housing programs from 2018 to 2023.  

“This report concludes that the state must do more to assess the cost-effectiveness of its homelessness programs,” State Auditor Grant Parks wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers. Five programs receiving $13.7 billion were audited. It found only two “likely cost-effective,” one that turns hotel and motel rooms into housing and another that helps families avoid homelessness.

Under Newsom's $3.6-billion homelessness plan, which transforms hotel and motel rooms, the average room costs 2.5 times less than building a new home, the audit found. Over the past five years, the housing assistance program has collected $760 million and given low-income families an average of $12,000 to $22,000, depending on county. That's a fraction of the estimated $50,000 the state spends on homeless people.  

Lack of data prevented evaluation of the remaining three programs, which collected $9.4 billion since 2020. Democratic state Sen. Dave Cortese, who requested the audit last year after viewing a major San Jose homeless encampment, called the report “a data desert” and indicated a disconcerting lack of transparency at every level.  

“Despite (the auditor office’s) professionalism and best efforts, they are at this time unable to... draw conclusions about things like whether or not overhead is appropriate or too high,” Cortese said, but he did not call for a homelessness spending freeze. Lack of accountability worries Republican state Sen. Roger Niello.  

Niello stated, “California is facing a concerning paradox: despite an exorbitant amount of dollars spent, the state's homeless population is not slowing down.” These audit results should prompt a change toward self-sufficiency and cost-effective alternatives.  

Newsom has prioritized ending homelessness, and if he runs for office, the crisis will follow him. He vigorously campaigned for a March proposition that requires counties to spend on housing and drug treatment programs to combat the state's homelessness crisis and made it easier to force people with behavioral health issues into treatment.  

The audit found that since June 2021, the California Interagency Council on Homelessness, which oversees homelessness programs, has not tracked spending or program effectiveness. The audit showed that the council did not consistently collect result data for these initiatives or validate municipal data. The audit revealed deleted records and test entries in the state database, and program participant data may be inflated.  

The audit found that lawmakers created the council in 2017 to address homelessness but only reported on spending once. Without trustworthy and recent spending data, “the state will continue to lack complete and timely information about the ongoing costs and associated outcomes of its homelessness programs,” the report states.

Meghan Marshall, council leader, agreed with the audit's findings and promised to adopt its suggestions “where possible” in a written response. She added that the council had limited data collection tools and that lawmakers simply wanted a one-time examination. The council told The Associated Press that local governments must also help.  

The State Auditor's findings highlight recent state progress to address homelessness, including a statewide assessment of homelessness programs. Local governments are responsible for executing these programs and collecting data on results that the state can use to evaluate program efficacy, therefore the statement emphasizes the need to hold them accountable. In San Jose and San Diego, the state auditor found that a lack of spending plans prevented them from tracking revenue and expenditure on homelessness.  

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