Several homeless people stand next to their tents across the street from a luxury apartment building in LA on Jan. 17, 2023. Credit: Jae C. Hong

No matter what we look like or how much we earn, everyone needs a safe place to call home. Home is a foundation for a good life and a building block for thriving communities. That’s why the daily suffering of our neighbors who have been pushed into homelessness is so upsetting.

Earlier this year, California lawmakers requested a statewide audit of homelessness spending to answer the question many Californians have asked: Why isn’t the money we’re spending yielding more results?

We can answer that question without a costly audit. What we’re doing is wholly insufficient given the depth of the problem. As a state, we are taking aspirin to cure a broken leg and then demanding answers for why it didn’t work. Too often we blame the solutions — or the people experiencing this crisis — instead of the systems that perpetuate it.

The roots of homelessness run deep, stretching back through generations of exclusionary, exploitative and shortsighted housing and employment policies. For every 100 extremely low-income households in California, 24 homes are available and affordable to them. The problem is reinforced every day by how difficult California’s laws and regulations — and often our neighbors make it to build deeply affordable housing.

Persistently low wages and weak protections for the lowest income workers make matters worse.

Our systems aren’t broken, they’re working exactly as they were designed — further privileging homeowners, corporations, whiter and wealthier neighborhoods over Black, brown, Indigenous and poor people. These communities are consistently left out.

While most Californians’ values have evolved over the years, our society remains rigged for exclusion. We’re not programmed to share a seat in a game of musical chairs. We hold zero-sum beliefs instead of realizing everyone can win.

Decades of bad policy means it will take bigger, more expensive solutions to deliver the results on homelessness that our struggling neighbors need and the public demands.

Yes, a few billion dollars a year is insufficient for a state with a shortfall of 1.2 million affordable homes. We have to reject the scarcity mindset that rationalizes inaction and half-measures. And we actually came close to doing that recently.

During the pandemic, eviction moratoria and emergency rental assistance programs prevented millions of households from being forced into homelessness across the country. Monthly payments of the federal Child Tax Credit cut child poverty in half in a matter of months. But instead of sustaining and refining those investments for the long term — which were actually needed before the pandemic and still are today — we’ve gone back to business as usual.

For example, Homekey is a pandemic-era state program that buys underutilized motels and other properties for conversion into interim and permanent supportive housing. Homekey is getting results. It is creating more than 6,800 desperately needed homes that will — over the course of their lifetimes — serve more than 75,000 households. Homekey showed that with resources, flexibility and creativity we can quickly house more people.

With sufficient resources and political will, we could build and acquire more affordable homes across the state with the urgency this crisis demands.

Real solutions are at our fingertips. We must make simultaneous investments, at scale, in multiple strategies to rapidly reduce unsheltered homelessness. Adequately resource the supportive services that end homelessness. Provide targeted financial assistance to stop homelessness before it happens. Build the affordable homes in each community’s state-approved housing plans and streamline processes to allow that to happen faster and cheaper. Raise the minimum wage. Ensure all our solutions reach the Black, Indigenous, disabled, LGBTQ and other people disproportionately affected.

Elected leaders have the power to make sweeping changes. But they aren’t going to lead this charge as long as they are worried about political cycles and getting re-elected. California needs broad coalitions that push for racial and economic justice and demand change together.

Everyone has to be willing to get involved, speak up and maybe even give up a perk we get from current government policy, or show up to support a new affordable housing development in our neighborhood.

Change is possible but only when we choose it together.

The homelessness conversation by California Voices features authors involved with the issue to help Californians grasp the solutions and areas of consensus. Read more voices on homelessness.

Tomiquia Moss for CalMatters.