The Importance of Local Policies in Tackling Homelessness

by Dylan Yang, December 2, 2021

It’s often easy to think of policy issues as national issues, or local issues. Sometimes, national, state, and local approaches can work in conjunction. Other times, these different levels of government action can create new conflicts.

In March of this year, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act — perhaps best remembered as a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. Among the wide range of programs and services that it funded included billions for housing and homelessness issues, including $5 billion specifically for homelessness assistance funding, distributed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development to localities around the country.

These funds have provided opportunities for local governments to find new solutions to tackle homelessness. In Santa Clara County, for example, two county supervisors proposed a $25 million grant to LifeMoves, a local nonprofit that works to turn shipping containers into prefabricated homes to serve as private rooms for homeless shelters. Notably, the grant was mostly made up of funds from the American Rescue Plan, highlighting the impact of federal programs.

The link from the federal to the local level, however, is often not so direct. LifeMoves has also applied to receive funding from ‘Project Homekey,’ a state program that aims to provide more access to affordable housing, primarily by turning hotel rooms into permanent housing. In just September, the Newsom administration announced an additional $2.75 billion for the program, which also received $1.2 billion under the American Rescue Plan. But while state officials may hail the program as an unprecedented expansion of housing in California, in local areas, the program has not always had the same reception.

Some local officials, and citizens as well, have voiced discomfort with the lack of local input and control in the process. In Milpitas, California, for example, more than 4,100 community members signed a petition in opposition to turning a local Extended Stay America hotel into permanent housing for 132 people suffering from homelessness. For some, it’s a personal issue: property owners can sell their properties to the state with no input from neighbors and minimal local review. This community pushback has not been unique to one city. On November 10, the City of Santa Clara nixed plans for a 60-unit housing development by LifeMoves, following an intense hearing with over 150 speakers expressing concerns with the development, often focused around the proposed project’s proximity to residential neighborhoods.

These challenges reflect an often-overlooked reality in tackling the homelessness issue: the importance of local sentiments. While it is clear that sweeping federal and state programs can offer significant potential, even the most well-funded programs enjoying the most political support in Washington or Sacramento must ultimately also earn the support of local residents.

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