Homelessness in California: Homes in the city, not on the streets

The other day, I was taking my kindergarten daughter to school at our synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). We passed a homeless man sleeping at the bus stop. She asked me if that man had a home, and I said no.  

California, which accounts for 12 percent of the United States population, is home to nearly 22 percent of the country’s homeless. More than half of all homeless Californians — 64 percent — are unsheltered, meaning they literally sleep on the streets, in parks, at bus stops and elsewhere. Fourteen percent of the homeless are veterans, and 20 percent are families. 

Here in Los Angeles, nearly 60,000 men, women and children live on the streets, many driven there by the high cost of housing. The average two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in this city rents for $1,523 per month, according to RealFacts.com. To afford that apartment, a family would need to earn $60,920 a year, if they are to spend one-third of their income on housing. That means a full-time wage earner would have to make $29.29 per hour, to afford rent — far more than many Angelenos earn. 

We at VBS have a proud tradition of helping the needy through our food bank and through relationships with shelters and service organizations. But we have come to believe we can’t solve this problem with aid alone, which is why our community now supports the California Homes and Jobs Act (SB 391), which has passed through the state Senate and is now under consideration in the assembly. 

Average incomes for truck drivers, social workers, childcare workers, most restaurant workers and construction workers can’t support that two-bedroom apartment, based on income data from the California Employment Development Department. To make ends meet, adults work multiple jobs, families double up with relatives, or scrimp and struggle to pay for living arrangements that they simply can’t afford. 

Lawmakers at the state, federal and local levels have proposed hikes to the minimum wage, in part to help working Americans make up for their reduced purchasing power. But even if the minimum wage were hiked to $15 an hour, as one Los Angeles city councilman has suggested, it would only bring a family halfway to affording that apartment.  And all it takes is one job loss, one medical problem, one car breakdown or needy relative to unravel a whole household budget, possibly landing that family on the street.
Meanwhile, the state’s commitment to building affordable housing has waned. Money from two housing bond measures has ended; local redevelopment agencies, which were required to allocate 20 percent of funds to affordable housing, were closed in the state’s budget crisis of 2012.

SB 391, which would institute a $75 recordation fee on real estate transactions other than the sale of property, is a good first step toward addressing the housing affordability crisis in California. It is expected to raise an average of $500 million annually that will be used to build or refurbish affordable housing statewide. By passing this bill, the state will also be able to leverage federal and private funds through matching, which will otherwise be lost. 

A wide array of business, labor and nonprofit organizations have recognized the urgency of this situation; the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the County Labor Federation, AARP and the United Way all support SB 391, as do veterans’ and children’s advocates.

We recognize it is not enough for our community to service the outcomes of injustice. We can never feed all those who are hungry; nor can we clothe all those who are naked. We must also move upstream, to the headwaters in which these injustices find their power. 

This bill — the only one being considered this year that could create new affordable housing options for thousands of Californians — specifically works with the population who rely most heavily on social services such as emergency rooms and emergency shelters. The funds raised will be used to help both working- and middle-class families, and will spur development of rapid rehousing initiatives, transitional and permanent rental units, and other housing options aimed at the homeless population. This is the latest and best effort of our legislators to create affordable housing that helps all Californians, including the homeless.  If this bill dies, then the hope for affordable housing dies in California. 

We urge you to learn more about SB 391. We’ve met with representatives from our congregation’s catchment area, and we encourage you to contact or schedule a meeting with your representatives to let them know that you are paying attention to this vote. A handful of Democrats in the assembly have not yet committed to voting for the bill, which needs a two-thirds majority to get to the governor’s desk.  

After passing that man asleep at the bus stop, my daughter asked me if we have to help him because once we were like him, poor and homeless, slaves in Egypt. “That is exactly why,” I said. 

We cannot let the parks and sidewalks of Los Angeles become the fleshpots of Egypt. It is not enough for us to provide meals at shelters or a word of comfort. We have an obligation to change the conditions of the market, with our mighty hands and our outstretched arms, in order to make it possible for hard-working people to live in our city.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and founded Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in our synagogues, schools, and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.