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California spent $13 billion on homelessness between 2018 and 2020, and in 2021 Gov. Gavin Newsom signed bills to spend another $12 billion to address the crisis. And that doesn’t count the spending by state and municipal agencies that must respond to encampments and their related problems. As everyone knows, California’s homelessness problem has only gotten worse. In October 2022, CalMatters noted that the unsheltered homeless population ballooned from 91,642 in 2017 to 116,567 in 2022. The costs of this problem impact virtually every area of state and local government. The California Department of Transportation is seeking $20.6 million to cover the cost of removing hazardous materials from encampments on Caltrans property over the next two years. In addition, Caltrans wants $5.8 million so its new Office of Homelessness and Encampments can hire seventeen new employees to work on a “Homeless Solutions Team” and manage the clearing of encampments alongside state roads and freeways. Caltrans says there are currently more than 5,000 encampments on its right-of-way properties. The agency expects to clear 1,200 of them during this fiscal year. The agency’s budget request notes the impact that the homelessness crisis is having on the traveling public and the transportation network. It also reports that emergency repairs over the past six years due to damage from encampments, including fires, cost $104 million. Although none of the funding to address homelessness goes to local fire departments, up and down the state the number of fires at homeless encampments is growing. Homeless-related fires were up 77% in three years in Sacramento, according to an October report by KCRA, which obtained the data in a public records request. In May, a Redwood City fire official said the city — population 82,000 — has an average of 120 fires a year due to homeless encampments. In 2021, the Los Angeles city Fire Department said fires related to homelessness were occurring at the rate of 24 per day and had nearly tripled over a period of three years. Municipal sanitation departments also incur extra expenses because of the state’s homelessness crisis. Cleanups can cost thousands of dollars per day and involve environmental compliance officers, vehicles, drivers, laborers, staff members and police. The homelessness crisis also has an impact on local government agencies responsible for parks, libraries, street services and public transportation. Perhaps every state and local agency should follow Caltrans’ example and establish its own “Office of Homelessness and Encampments.” When we see their budget requests, we’ll know the true cost of failed policies.

The costs of this problem impact virtually every area of state and local government.


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