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How homelessness compares in the country's four most populous states

The VP of the National Coalition for the Homeless said every state has seen an increase in homelessness during COVID, but prior to that, some were seeing a drop.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The vice president of the National Coalition for the Homeless said every state has seen an increase in homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, but homelessness was an issue long before the pandemic. 

Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown is vice president of the National Coalition for the Homelessness and Stetson University's chair of social justice education.

Dr. Shankar-Brown said the numbers you are about to read grossly underestimate the true number of homeless people, leaving out youth and children, which is not as easy to record. Many parents don’t want to report it to their child's school because of the fear their children will be taken away. 

The most recent numbers from the United States Interagency on Homelessness recorded are from 2020, just before the pandemic.

From 2010 to 2020, Florida saw a decrease of about 30,000. Texas also saw a decrease of almost 8,000. New York saw an increase of about 26,000. However, California saw the biggest increase at 38,000. 

In other states, some strategies appear to be working. Florida has reduced homelessness by focusing on veterans.

RELATED: 'A lot of people have died' | Homeless veterans say there is an overwhelming need for housing

“There’s been a lot of investment working with really HUD federal voucher programs, looking at dollars invested into veteran support services, making sure that veterans have access to get into long-term housing, rental housing," Dr. Shankar-Brown said. "So that’s really been an area where they’ve decreased homelessness."

"About 70% of homeless veterans have been housed over the past decade with this kind of concerted investment," Shankar-Brown added. 

California accounts for 12% of the U.S population, but it is home to 28% of the country’s homeless veterans. 

"Texas, you’ll also see the housing first initiatives in communities that have really helped to reduce homelessness," she said. 

For California, she said the state had those initiatives in pockets.

Political Reporter Morgan Rynor brought what she said to one of Governor Gavin Newsom's top homeless advisors, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. 

"The state itself, again, has provided unprecedented resources," Steinberg said. "Much more than Texas or Florida, to convert motels into housing, and veterans are always at the top of the priority list."

Over in New York, New York City has a rate of homelessness similar to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it has a different character. It’s not as obvious. 

Tom Albanese is the Housing and Urban Development’s lead technical provider for New York City and Detroit. He is also an independent consultant that helps counties across the country address homelessness.

"The reason New York has a right to shelter is because legal aid attorneys took the city to court a couple of decades ago," Albanese said. "They forced the city to do something that at the time was a pretty visible homeless problem."

As of January 2020, 72% of California's homeless population is unsheltered. They live outside. In New York, that figure is just 5%. 

Credit: HUD

Mayor Steinberg was asked if California should implement a right to shelter.

"I think it should," Steinberg said, "But I think we should go a step further. I think it should be legal right to housing."

RELATED: Proposal on right to housing, obligation to accept up for discussion at Sacramento council meeting

He said the state’s taskforce recommended to the governor and legislature a "right to housing" before the pandemic. 

"We don't say it's optional to provide free public education for children," Steinberg said. "We require the building of public schools. When it comes to climate change, we don't say that it's optional to meet ever-increasing percentages of renewable energy. We mandate it because it matters."

Steinberg and all three other experts Morgan spoke with including the director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance agreed the number one solution is affordable housing. 

California is home to seven out of 10 of the most expensive cities for tenants. 

The median California home is about 2.5 times more expensive than the average national home. 

"If the housing and economic situation is going in the opposite direction, you can have a significant infusion of more homelessness prevention and still see the numbers rise," Albanese said. 

There’s a myth that homeless people don’t want to work. Dr. Shankar-Brown said that couldn't be further from the truth. 40% of them are working two jobs. They just can’t afford rent.

To combat this, Newsom signed 30 housing bills in 2021, and the state budget allocated $12 billion to help mitigate homelessness. 

"I think that we should be able to bend the curve," Steinberg said. "We can't cure it, but I think we can make it better."

It won’t be an overnight fix, but it is a step in the right direction. 

It’s also important to note that, while Texas and Florida have reduced homelessness, their systems aren’t perfect either. 

Dr. Shankar-Brown said Florida has some of the worst and most inhumane practices where cities sweep people to the outskirts of town and throw their belongings away. It is something she said parts of California do as well. 

California is investing in so many hotels, but there are people who don’t want to go into shelter or housing no matter what. 

What did the experts say is a solution for that? 

Albanese said the number one fear people have going into hotels is that the door will be locked on them, and they will be watched like hawks. He said there needs to be better street education to let people know that’s not the case. 

He also said shelters should not be conditional. He said there’s no evidence that shows conditional housing, such as no drugs, encourages people to stop. In fact it does the opposite. 

There are just always going to be people who want to sleep on the streets with the community they’ve built, and that’s the hardest sector. 

This doesn’t all fall on the states though. Affordable housing is the number one solution, and part of that is subsidized housing. The federal government has slashed subsidized housing by 80% over the last four decades. 

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Unsheltered Life: Homeless in Sacramento | Part I