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California Gives Mayors Funding For Homelessness


California has the largest population for homeless people in the country. And this week, the state legislature there gave mayors around the state $650 million to try to deal with the growing problem. We're joined now by Anna Scott, housing reporter at member station KCRW in Santa Monica. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You're there in metro Los Angeles, which is reportedly where half of all people who are homeless in California live. How do you describe the problem, what you see every day?

SCOTT: Well, if you haven't been to LA lately or ever, I can't really overstate how much this crisis has completely transformed life in this city. Just about everywhere you go, every neighborhood, you see tents on the sidewalk, sometimes rows of them taking up entire blocks. You see people sleeping on bus benches, in parks, in doorways. You see very elaborate encampments under freeway crossings all over the city with furniture, mattresses, piles of clothing and belongings. A lot of people are very angry about having to navigate around all of this, having to walk their children through encampments on their way to school. And it's a miserable situation for people on the streets. There are public health concerns for everyone, and, honestly, it's horrific.

SIMON: San Francisco reportedly has a 30% increase since just 2017; also a lot of homelessness in Santa Clara County, Alameda County. What are some of the reasons that so many people in California are homeless? Is it the economy?

SCOTT: Well, one way that I explain it is there are all kinds of reasons that any one person can become homeless. There's mental illness, job loss, eviction, but those things aren't new. What has changed very dramatically in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco is the price of an apartment in recent years. Here in LA, the average apartment is more than $2,000 a month.

SIMON: Two thousand dollars a month - so somebody could have a job or more than one job and be working hard and still not be able to afford housing.

SCOTT: Yeah. And that's happening to a lot of people. And for all the people that end up on the streets, which is a large number of people here in greater LA - that's almost 60,000 people - many more become homeless for some period of time throughout the year. But maybe they sleep on a couch or in a car for a week, and they're able to get out of it on their own.

SIMON: No doubt $650 million is a lot of money, but the mayors wanted $2 billion. So what will the $650 million do, and what will not be done because they didn't have $2 billion?

SCOTT: We're getting a big chunk of the money here in LA - $124 million - and a lot of it, about half, is going to go to building new shelters all over the city. So that's something that's already underway. But the cost of land and construction has been higher than officials expected, which has slowed things down, so this money will hopefully speed up that process. Another big chunk is going to go to other more permanent forms of housing. One thing that city officials here are talking about doing is renting out entire hotels and then subleasing them to people who otherwise would be homeless.

SIMON: My own time that I spent some years ago at this point reporting on homelessness, one thing I learned is that a lot of homeless people don't like shelters. They don't trust the people there. They don't like living there.

SCOTT: Yeah, that's definitely an issue. Shelters are not the most desirable place to go. But, ultimately, yes, the real issue is the lack of permanent affordable housing.

SIMON: And in addition to the money, what other kinds of programs or initiatives are in place to try and address the growing problem?

SCOTT: Well, at the state level right now, they're considering a temporary bill to limit rent increases statewide. That would be in place for a few years. And there's also been a lot of talk, although it's very controversial, about changing how land is zoned in cities like Los Angeles, so allowing for more density, more apartment buildings, allowing for cities to build more housing, essentially, because at the heart of this affordability problem, there's a housing shortage.

SIMON: Anna Scott, housing reporter for KCRW in Santa Monica, thanks so much for being with us.

SCOTT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott