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PolitiFact California: Fact-Checking Claims On California’s Unsheltered Homeless Population

Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio
verett May, 37, waits with a friend while others complete surveys for the homeless count. They each receive a $5 McDonald's gift card and plan to get dinner together.

During his recent push for a ‘right to shelter’ law, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg made eye-opening claims about the share of unsheltered homeless people in California compared with New York City — and on the soaring rate of homeless deaths in two major cities in the state. 

Steinberg co-chairs the state’s Commission on Homelessness and Supportive Housing. He was elected Sacramento mayor in 2016. Before that, he served in the Legislature from 1998 to 2014, serving as state Senate President for his final six years. 

In 2004, he co-authored the Mental Health Services Act, which sets aside $2.4 billion each year for treatment and services. He also helped pass last year’s state Proposition 2, which uses existing mental health funds to build $2 billion in permanent supporting housing for homeless individuals with mental illness. Locally, he has led Sacramento’s $64 million initiative to move thousands of homeless people into supportive housing.

Last week, Steinberg and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called on California leaders to adopt a right to shelter law to ensure shelter space for all homeless people in the state, but would also legally obligate them to use it when offered. 

Steinberg also wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed titled "Building more permanent housing alone won’t solve homelessness in California."

His proposal drew criticism from some advocates for the homeless. Some said it would divert funding for housing, which they and Steinberg see as the long-term solution to the homelessness crisis. They also argued there are cheaper, more effective ways to temporarily house the homeless.

A right to shelter policy "can lead to things like warehousing, where people are staying in shelters for a significant amount of time," said Chris Martin, legislative advocate for the nonprofit Housing California, which opposes the policy. "There are other solutions that are a temporary fix … something like rental assistance." 

Amid the policy debate and growing crisis, we examined the facts behind Steinberg’s homelessness claims, though we did not place formal Truth-O-Meter ratings on them.

"... in New York City, which has a court-ordered right to shelter, approximately 95 percent of the 79,000 homeless people sleep indoors. In California, by contrast, 68 percent of the state’s 130,000 homeless sleep outdoors in the elements." 

Steinberg made this assertion in a news release outlining his shelter plan. He’s correct about New York City’s court-ordered law and generally right about the city-to-state comparison. But there’s a couple details to clear up. 

In 1979, the New York State Supreme Court ordered New York City and New York State to provide shelter for all homeless men in a landmark decision, which paved the way for shelter for the right to shelter law in the city years later. 

For the next part of the claim, the mayor’s office cited data from The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It shows approximately 95 percent of New York State’s 92,000 homeless people were sheltered in 2018, meaning they slept indoors at a temporary facility. 

By contrast, it found nearly 69 percent of California’s 130,000 homeless individuals were unsheltered, meaning they slept on the streets, in cars or abandoned buildings. It also found California had the highest percentage of unsheltered people in the nation.

The report essentially supports Steinberg’s statement, though it compares statewide homeless populations, not a New York City-to-California comparison. 

Steinberg’s spokeswoman noted that New York City was home to the vast majority of New York State’s homeless population.

Freezing winter a factor

Experts we spoke with agreed with Steinberg’s statement, but noted a key difference: the extreme cold of New York City’s winter. 

The freezing cold, along with the city’s right to shelter law, likely forces most of the homeless inside in New York City, whereas California’s weather is "more bearable," said Sharon Rapport, associate director of the California Policy Corporation for Supportive Housing. Rapport’s group develops housing policy and makes housing loans.

Rapport noted that the five states with the highest share of unsheltered homelessess are Western states, California, Oregon, Nevada, Hawaii and Washington, all with more mild winters. 

The states with the highest sheltered rates are on the colder East Coast, including Maine, Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts. 

Rapport said her group does not support a right to shelter law. 

Next, we examined Steinberg’s claim, made in the op-ed, on the rising homeless death rate in two major cities: 

"Record numbers of them (homeless people) are dying. In Los Angeles, deaths among the unsheltered homeless are up 76% over the last five years. In Sacramento, where I am mayor, unsheltered homeless deaths are up 75% since last year."

We found reports by news and advocacy groups that generally back up this statement, though the Sacramento figure needs a couple clarifications. 

The Los Angeles portion is supported by an April analysis by Kaiser Health News. It found, "A record number of homeless people — 918 last year alone — are dying across Los Angeles County, on bus benches, hillsides, railroad tracks and sidewalks. Deaths have jumped 76% in the past five years, outpacing the growth of the homeless population." The report is based on coroner's data. 

Steinberg’s claim about Sacramento deaths is about a year out-of-date, but is generally supported by a report published in 2018 by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. It tallied 124 deaths of homeless people in Sacramento County in 2017, a 75 percent jump over the 71 deaths the year before. It also used coroner’s statistics.

Bob Erlenbusch, the coalition’s executive director, said most who died were unsheltered homeless people, though some died in a shelter or hospital. The report does not tally how many died indoors vs. outdoors. 

Erlenbusch said he expects figures for 2018 will be released in August. 

"The trend is pretty dramatic," he added. "It’s a function of the fact that there’s just more homeless people." 

We’ll continue to examine claims on California’s homelessness crisis. Suggest a fact-check by emailing politifactca@capradio.org, or contact us on Twitteror Facebook.