The national Point in Time count of homeless people happens in two weeks, and this time around getting the most accurate numbers possible is crucial.
Actually, getting a proper count is always crucial, but this time it’s imperative locally because state officials are finally waking up to one of California’s biggest problems — a growing army of street people, homeless encampments, and downtown areas clogged with folks who have no shelter.
Experts estimate California is more than 3.5 million housing units short of what is needed. That fact has encouraged state lawmakers to consider compelling developers to build more apartments and other types of housing in core areas of our cities.
Not everyone is buying into the idea of increasing housing density in core areas. Local government officials throughout the state are objecting to the proposal, in large part because they believe state government should not tell them how to manage growth in their communities.
The right of self-determination is central to our form of democracy, as is the concept of local control when it comes to how our communities are to be developed. Local policy makers do not appreciate being dictated to by lawmakers at the state or federal levels. That, too, has been a cornerstone of the nation’s social development.
The bill being pushed in the Legislature for core housing development is similar to past legislation, which has never made it to a final vote. This latest version has some key differences. For example, the 2020 version would exempt local governments from parts of the law — if locals come up with their own rules to build more housing. The local rules would still require approval from at least two state agencies.
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Another concern is that these requirements, if approved, could conceivably change the fundamental nature of California communities. Developers could, for example, build a high-rise housing complex in an area historically restricted to single-family homes. The proposed law would allow homeowners to renovate existing properties to add up to three additional housing units.
Using a little imagination, you can see how such changes could drastically alter the look of the core downtown areas of Santa Maria or Lompoc.
We use Santa Maria and Lompoc as examples because these two cities have North County’s largest homeless populations. In the 2019 Point in Time count, volunteers identified 464 people on the streets of Santa Maria, and 249 homeless in Lompoc.
The problem is that those numbers almost certainly are entirely accurate. Homeless people, by nature and inclination, are often reluctant to be counted, and will go into hiding when the volunteers come around asking questions.
The proposed housing law changes at the state level reflect the enormity of the problem. In last year’s Point in Time count, California had 151,278 homeless, an increase of more than 21,000 over the 2018 count, and again, almost surely below the actual homeless population total.
The Trump administration has been wagging fingers at California’s surging homeless population as a massive failure on the state’s part, and in a very real way, that is correct.
But it’s also a huge failure on the part of American society in general, which has an ever-growing gap between the very rich and the very poor. It seems wildly contradictory that while this nation holds fast to a vibrant economy that is more than a decade long, it simultaneously is attempting to deal with a mushrooming homeless population, and more than 50 million Americans trying to survive without health care coverage.
Something to consider as we draw closer to a national election.