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Addressing California's homeless crisis

To build dialogue on one of the most pressing issues facing California, the SIEPR Policy Forum convened a wide range of experts who are working the front lines of homelessness.
homeless encampment

For a deeper look at the homeless crisis and perspectives from those in the thick of it, check out our documentary, SIEPR policy brief, recordings of the Policy Forum, and the story below.

From 2014 to 2020, homelessness in California soared — by an estimated 42 percent — while the rest of the country saw a 9 percent decline. At the same time, federal money meant to help the neediest poured into state and local coffers. Today, California tops the nation in spending on homelessness.

This disconnect was a key point at the SIEPR Spring Policy Forum on homelessness that convened nearly 200 advocates, state and local government officials, academics, business executives and nonprofit leaders who are working the front lines of the crisis.

“Where is all the money going?” asked Mark Duggan, the Trione Director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), during his opening remarks at the institute’s first in-person event since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The daylong conference on May 19 — packed with candid exchanges and insightful perspectives — was part of SIEPR’s California Policy Research Initiative (CAPRI), which aims to address the many challenges facing the nation’s most populous state and the world’s fifth-largest economy by providing policy-relevant research and fostering connections between Stanford scholars and policymakers.

Duggan posed a similar question about the homelessness money trail in his discussion later with Scott Wiener, a California state senator who was one of the forum’s three keynote speakers.

“Are policymakers interested in evidence?” Duggan asked.

“Often yes,” the lawmaker replied. But politics can get in the way, Wiener said. “[There’s] a spectrum” of interest.

The lack of accessible, centralized government data that could shed light on California’s skyrocketing homeless problem — and could ensure that, with the same information at hand, everyone working on the issue can identify workable solutions — is a major obstacle to reducing homelessness, Duggan said. The dearth of well-linked information is also a barrier to academics who require rich data to study homelessness and its related issues.

Scott Wiener and Mark Duggan
California State Senator Scott Wiener discusses homelessness policies with SIEPR Director Mark Duggan.

The conversation was one of many blunt and sobering discussions that analyzed homelessness in California — the magnitude and complexity of which is detailed in a SIEPR policy brief. The forum addressed an overarching question: Is California’s homeless crisis — which some participants described as a human rights catastrophe — fundamentally a result of failed policies and misguided efforts?

The event’s purpose was to bring together a diverse group of people on the front lines who often work in siloes and at times are at odds with each other. While everyone agreed that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all fix to homelessness in California, the goal was to encourage constructive conversations about effective strategies. The speakers included homeless advocates, an affordable housing developer, an environmental lawyer, a pastor, a recovering and formerly homeless drug addict, Oakland’s police chief, a district attorney, and academic researchers. Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento, and Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego, also delivered keynotes.

The diversity of opinions and experiences — shared by panelists and the audience — made for lively discussions on a wide range of topics: From the roots of California’s severe housing shortage and the anti-development phenomenon of nimbyism, or “not in my backyard,” to the depths of mental illness, the challenge of public safety, the lack of coordination across government, and the promise of solutions like low-cost modular housing units and smarter usage of data. (View recordings of the sessions here or from the list below.)

“Homelessness needs an operating system,” said panelist Rosanne Haggerty, the founder and CEO of Community Solutions, a nonprofit that gathers real-time data to support homeless individuals. “The right kind of data is key” to addressing the problem.

"I learned we need to continue this [collective] dialogue and work collaboratively to achieve our common goal."

- Attendee, Kara Chien, San Francisco Public Defender's Office, mental health unit.

Building momentum for dialogue, collaboration

Duggan, in remarks to attendees, said that SIEPR can play an important role in addressing homelessness in California. The goal is to partner with civic institutions and nonprofits to develop research agendas that will help inform policymaking and other strategies.

“Because we are a politically unaffiliated academic research institution,” said Duggan, “we are very well-positioned to bring together a vast array of experts and ideas and hold them all to the same unbiased, rigorous level of examination to try getting at the heart of what might make for sound and effective policy.”

“We approach this job with a tremendous amount of humility,” he said, “recognizing that economists don’t know everything.”

Jialu Streeter, the director of partnerships and a research scholar at SIEPR, organized the Policy Forum and authored the SIEPR policy brief that outlined policy considerations. In producing SIEPR’s documentary, “Homelessness in California,” she conducted more than 30 interviews for a deep dive into the critical issue. 

“As researchers, we can forget at times that each data point on a computer screen represents a real person,” Streeter said. “After talking with homeless individuals and those who work on homelessness, I have come to better appreciate their true concerns and practical challenges. There are many unsung heroes.”

The forum also gave new insights to practitioners at ground zero of homelessness.

Kara Chien, for example, works with many homeless individuals as the managing attorney in the mental health unit of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. For her, conversations around homelessness often center on quality of mental health treatment or housing solutions. But the forum taught her about other obstacles to reducing homelessness — like the frequent use of the California Environmental Quality Act to block affordable housing development.

“I got to learn something new and to see the whole picture” of homelessness in the state, she said. “I also learned that we need to continue this [collective] dialogue and work collaboratively to achieve our common goal.”

*All photos by Ryan Zhang