By Heather Knight
The sheer number of kids in California who have nowhere to call home and the failure of the state's leaders to address the growing crisis place it 48th among the 50 states for dealing with children's homelessness -- ranking it just above Mississippi and Alabama.
Those are the findings of a report released Monday by the National Center on Family Homelessness, part of the larger nonprofit American Institutes for Research, which conducts social science research. It found that nationwide, 2.5 million children -- one in 30 -- do not have a stable place to sleep at night.
California has 526,708 homeless children, the third most in the nation per capita, and the number has been climbing steadily since at least 2010. The report counts as homeless children who sleep in shelters and cars, on friends' couches, doubled up with other families and other unstable living situations.
Even for those California children who are housed, their risk for becoming homeless is high because 24 percent of the state's children live in poverty, home foreclosures remain common, and rents are high.
The report also ranks the wealthy, liberal state 49th for its leaders' policy and planning around children's homelessness. The state has just 1,650 emergency shelter spots specifically for families and 5,064 permanent supportive housing units for them, according to the report.
California has no state interagency council on homelessness, and Gov. Jerry Brown has rarely addressed the issue since taking office four years ago.
Evan Gerberding, director of external affairs for the state's Housing and Community Development agency, said the governor's office is "deeply concerned about homeless youth" and pointed to $10 million in grant funding for organizations that offer emergency solutions for families that become homeless.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who as mayor of San Francisco made homelessness his signature issue, wasn't available for comment. He has slammed Brown for not paying enough attention to homelessness but has little power to address it himself.
Trent Rhorer, director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency, said California is finally making some strides. In his current budget Brown included $20 million for housing subsidies for families participating in CalWorks, the state's welfare-to-work program. San Francisco will get $2 million and will use it to help 80 to 100 families afford rent, Rhorer said.
"The discussion around persistent poverty and the widening income gap in California, especially, I think has finally gotten policymakers' attention," Rhorer said.
Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, noted that despite its wealth, California ranks alongside poor Southern states in its inability to house its children.
"It's pathetic, frankly, that we're doing so badly in California and we have such a big tax base to draw from in order to address the issue," she said.
The federal government has long prioritized ending homelessness among single adults and has not provided states and cities with nearly as much funding for programs related to family homelessness.
Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which advocates for homeless people, said city and state governments have done a terrible job of demanding more money and attention be spent on housing families.
"Our hearts tell us we want to prioritize families. Our data tells us we want to prioritize families," he said. "But money is everything."
San Francisco, too, has prioritized single homeless adults for years, but City Hall is finally paying more attention to homeless families. Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, have donated money to city agencies and nonprofits to house homeless families, and the San Francisco Housing Authority is rehabbing some vacant units for homeless families.
The San Francisco Unified School District counts 2,100 public school students in the city as homeless.
Jeff Kositsy, executive director of the Hamilton Family Center, which provides housing and services to homeless families, said low-income families around the city and state are still reeling from the recession, but that San Francisco is responding better to it than other places.
"Whereas the numbers don't look great in California around childhood poverty, I do think San Francisco has been gearing itself up to deal with this growing crisis," he said. "It's unfortunate the numbers are bad -- it's terrible -- but I also think it's important to look at what are the reactions."
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