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California program to clear homeless encampments show signs of success, but housing remains elusive

People under an overpass at Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, on Jan. 12, 2024. A recent abatement effort cleared many encampments where unhoused people were sleeping, but some individuals continue residing in the park.
Loren Elliott
People under an overpass at Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, on Jan. 12, 2024. A recent abatement effort cleared many encampments where unhoused people were sleeping, but some individuals continue residing in the park.

A multi-year, $750 million program aimed at doing away with homeless encampments has had mixed results throughout California. Local leaders say ongoing funding is needed.

For years, the Guadalupe River Trail — a winding path that snakes through the heart of downtown San Jose — had been home to hundreds of people living in tents and make-shift shacks.

In recent months, many have vanished as part of a $750 million-push by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration — dubbed the Encampment Resolution Fund — to clear homeless encampments from cities throughout California.

“The before and after photos are stark,” said San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan. “You have an area that was just full of trash and tents and RVs and belongings and graffiti. There were literally chickens running around. And now it’s coming back to public use. People are starting to walk the trail, bike the trail, look at the river.”

But an analysis of preliminary progress reports submitted to the state, as well as interviews with early Encampment Resolution Fund grant recipients, shows the program has had mixed results up and down California. Even in San Jose, it hasn’t met its overarching goal of finding permanent housing for most of the people moved off the river trail.

More than a year after the checks went out, nearly two-thirds of the $48 million awarded in the first round of statewide grants has been spent. The money has paid for everything from shelter beds to case workers to security deposits so people living in encampments could rent apartments. But so far, only three of the 19 jurisdictions that got funding reported completely clearing their targeted encampments. Nearly 750 people still lived in those camps as of the end of September, according to the latest data available from the state.

The first-round grants must be spent by the end of June.

An abatement notice is posted at Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, Jan. 12, 2024.
Loren Elliott
An abatement notice is posted at Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, Jan. 12, 2024.

Even in cities and counties that have had success moving people off the street and into temporary shelters, it’s proven much harder to find permanent housing. San Jose used the state funding to move nearly 200 people off the river trail — a heavy lift the city previously had been unable to accomplish. But just 11% of those people made it into permanent housing. Another 37% moved into temporary shelter. The city doesn’t know what happened to the others: More than half the people relocated from the trail are unaccounted for.

Across the state, hundreds of people who were moved out of encampments last year and in 2022, using state money, still are in shelters, waiting for a home of their own.

“I think what we’re really seeing across the board and with this funding is it’s just taking so much longer to get people into housing because there’s a lack of affordable resources,” said Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of PATH, a homeless services nonprofit that worked with San Jose and several other cities to administer the grants.

From encampment to housing

Instead of merely shuffling unhoused people from one camp to another — as had been widespread practice for years — Newsom insisted this program would focus on getting people into housing. Cities and counties seeking funding must prove they either will move encampment residents directly into permanent housing, or into temporary shelters with “clear pathways” to permanent housing. The state rejected an application from Chico because its plan for permanent housing fell short, said Chico Deputy City Manager Jennifer Macarthy.

But drawing a straight line from an encampment to a long-term home is easier said than done.

Tulare, in the Central Valley, used its $1.6 million grant to clear five encampments where about 100 people lived. But it couldn’t come up with enough beds for everyone, and as people moved out of the camps, new people kept showing up.

Instead of finding everyone a home, the city ended up giving 150 people tents and moving them into a sanctioned encampment. As of December, only 44 people from the five camps had landed in permanent housing.

But that’s at least double the rate Tulare was housing people before it got the state money, said Housing and Grants Manager Alexis Costales, who describes the program as a success. Tulare won another $4.8 million in the state’s second round of encampment grants, and hopes that money will get more people housed.

Los Angeles won a $1.7 million grant, which put 45 unhoused people up in a motel for several months. But motel rooms are expensive, and by the time those funds ran out, only about half had found permanent housing, said Hark Dietz. Six people left the program, and the rest moved into shelters, where PATH continues to work with them to find housing.

Santa Barbara County is using part of its $2.5 million grant to open two new tiny homes sites which, starting this spring, will provide temporary shelter to dozens of people living in encampments. So far county workers have reached out to about 200 camp residents, and brought 81 inside. Of those, 52 made it to permanent housing, said the county’s Encampment Response Coordinator Lucille Boss.

“We couldn’t have done a lot of this without the state’s investment,” Boss said.

In San Jose, Mahan said many people declined the city’s shelter beds. One of them was Alicia Spangenberg. Outreach workers offered her a tiny home, but the 27-year-old, who has been homeless nearly five years, isn’t ready to sacrifice her freedom and privacy to live in a tiny dwelling with shared bathrooms and follow the program’s rules.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “it’s whether somebody wants to be helped.”

Alicia Spangenberg, who is unhoused and sleeps along the trail, at Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, Jan. 12, 2024.
Loren Elliott
Alicia Spangenberg, who is unhoused and sleeps along the trail, at Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, Jan. 12, 2024.

California cities soon may have more freedom to clear homeless encampments if the Supreme Court strikes down a 2018 ruling that had largely tied their hands. In Martin v. Boise, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found cities cannot punish unhoused people for camping on public land if they have no other option — which cities interpreted to mean they must have shelter beds available before clearing a camp.

Regardless of what happens in that case, Newsom’s administration has made clear that cities hoping to use state encampment resolution funds must do more than simply kick people out of an encampment. They must plan to “resolve the experience of unsheltered homelessness” for the camp residents.

Limited funding

As the grant money runs out, some local leaders and service providers worry the gains they made might be reversed without additional funding to keep up the work they started.

It’s unclear when more money might materialize. Newsom’s proposed budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year, released this month, doesn’t propose cuts to the program. But after the current round of nearly $300 million— which cities and counties are applying for now — is spent, there’s no new funding on the horizon. The state appropriated a total of $400 million for this round, but about $100 million of that automatically went to cities that applied last time but were rejected because of insufficient funds.

“If you are investing only in an intervention that’s temporary, then the solution is temporary,” said Sharon Rapport, director of California state policy for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, who has criticized Newsom for refusing to provide ongoing funding for homelessness. “It’s not going to result in reducing homelessness. It’s just going to result in a lot of people using our shelter beds.”

And as with any competitive grant program, many communities were left out of the initial rounds of funding.

When the grant program launched in 2021, Paramount — a city of five square miles in Los Angeles County — jumped at the opportunity. The small municipality made a small ask: $160,000 to clear a camp of about 30 people along the Los Angeles riverbed and expand the city’s shelter system.

The application was rejected without an explanation or any feedback, said Steven Coumparoules, Paramount’s community preservation manager. When he looked at the cities awarded funding, including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose, he concluded the state favored big cities. It soured him against applying again.

But money from the state could have made a big difference in Paramount, Coumparoules said. There are no shelter beds within the city limits, and the shelter up the road in Bell is full. The river remains a “hotbed” of homeless camps, he said.

“The cleanups aren’t solving the problem,” Coumparoules said. “You’re kind of just reshuffling people from one location to another.”

Chico, where many refugees from the 2018 Camp wildfire remain homeless, asked the state for $1.9 million in 2021 to relocate about 150 people from the banks of the Comanche Creek. Officials thought they had made a good case, and were surprised when they were rejected, said Deputy City Manager Macarthy.

The state eventually made more money available. But by that time, Chico had used city funds to clear the creek, and the state wouldn’t let the city tweak its application to secure funds for one of its many other encampments.

When the second round of grants opened, Chico applied again for a different encampment. Again, the city was rejected. This time, the state said Chico’s plan to move people from the camp into permanent housing fell short.

Without state help, the city spends about $4 million a year on clearing encampments and moving people into shelters.

“I would be lying if I said this is not a burden on our community from our financial perspective,” Macarthy said. City staff plan to try again for some of the $300 million available now in the third round of grants.

“So,” Macarthy said, “fingers crossed.”

Money for beautification

In the months since San Jose cleared the camps off of the river trail, a handful of people already have moved back. To combat that, the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy is using $200,000 — 10% of the state grant — to rehabilitate the trail. The conservancy has hired two park ambassadors who patrol the area and report illegal dumping and tents. The organization also is experimenting with hosting lawn games and other activities to liven up the trail, and has plans to commission a mural.

The state has since changed its rules, and using grant money for those types of ancillary expenses is no longer allowed. But without that money, it would have been impossible to prevent people from coming back to camp, or to convince community members — long deterred by the tents — to return to the trail for recreation, said Jason Su, executive director of the conservancy. He worries about the trail reverting to its former state once the grant money runs out this summer.

Shaun Pyles (right) and Rodney Scott, who are both unhoused and sleeping along the trail, sit at the camp of Pyles at the Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, Jan. 12, 2024.
Loren Elliott
Shaun Pyles (right) and Rodney Scott, who are both unhoused and sleeping along the trail, sit at the camp of Pyles at the Guadalupe River Park in San Jose, Jan. 12, 2024.

Rodney Scott, one of the remaining unhoused people living along the Guadalupe River Trail, is hoping for a second chance. In 2022, the 36-year-old moved into one of the tiny homes the city uses as temporary shelter. It was great, he said: He could shower whenever he wanted, and play Xbox online with his son. But in nearly a year in the program, he never got off the waitlist for permanent housing. Then, Scott said he was kicked out of the tiny home after getting in one too many arguments with other residents.

Since then, he’s been living in a tent outside a Target, hoping a housing placement will come through.

“It’s too cold to be out here right now,” Scott said. “I got heart failure. So it’s like, am I going to die waiting for an apartment?”

Jeanne Kuang contributed to this story.

For the record: The salary of Lucille Boss, Santa Barbara County’s encampment response coordinator, is paid primarily by American Rescue Plan funds.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.