Chronic Vagrancy vs. Homelessness And The Millions of Dollars Being Spent

By Lang Martinez   |   February 28, 2023
Hands volunteer Tracey Willfong and Melissa Placentia interview a man experiencing homelessness at the Chevron

As a person who has experienced homelessness as a former addict living on the streets of Ventura County, I have come to understand how chronic vagrancy gives homelessness a bad name. For the last four years I have made the choice to wake up clean and sober so I can advocate for others like me and enlighten the public how the definition of homelessness is blurred by chronic vagrancy. Without transparency it’s easy to overlook and difficult to recognize how resources are oftentimes misdirected under the blanket of “homeless” resources. The public needs to understand that most of the visibly unhoused people are unable to accept the wealth of outreach and services being offered in the name of homelessness. This specific population is considered to be “Service Resistant” with successful outcomes being few and far between. Being homeless and being a vagrant are two completely different sets of problems and need to be treated as such so that resources can be appropriately focused to those who truly need them and have the potential to benefit most.

I have two anecdotal opinions on this matter. The first example is the government’s Housing First Model which I don’t see as a comprehensive solution. Statistics have already proven that the model has had a less than desirable outcome for sustaining an individual in a long term permanent housing solution. Regardless of whether a person is experiencing an unhoused situation or if they are living a life of addiction on our downtown streets, the public needs to start questioning how and IF their tax dollars are being allocated to reduce the overall impacts homelessness and vagrancy. The time has come for an audit so that the public can understand whether or not the millions being spent annually are in fact making a change the public would like to see. In my estimation, the funds being allocated to address homelessness lack public scrutiny and transparency. I often question myself if homeless funding has become just another bureaucratic line item bringing service providers an annual money trough that lacks any tracking, meaningful evaluation or measurable outcomes.

Another example that begs for better governance of homeless services was the statewide funding allocated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of dollars from the state of California flowed to the emergency program, Project Room Key. Los Angeles issued the biggest need to house people in the state to stop the spread of the virus. Statistics showed that L.A. County had 68,000 homeless individuals with an emergency allocation to house 15,000 people immediately. Since that time, studies show that less than 6,000 people were housed with this emergency funding. I consider this a failure and a clear indication of the misdirection of public funds not appropriately addressing the difference between homelessness and vagrancy. On the street accounts from L.A. and Ventura counties revealed to me that there were many unreported incidents of people who died from an overdose or suicide while living in a hotel supplied by the Project Room Key program. This is a sad and underreported commentary for a program that was intended to save lives as the state of some individuals’ mental health and their substance abuse was either ignored or forgotten.

With millions of dollars being spent on programs like the Housing First Model and Project Room Key, it’s become an expensive and ineffective endeavor to address homelessness and vagrancy simultaneously. Do the administrative costs and salaries to pay service providers give taxpayers realistic results? Are we blindly funding approved solutions without fully knowing how complex of a crisis we are facing? 

The homeless situation overall is in crisis. Service providers have exposed that in many cases there are no fundamental outcomes toward resolving the problems impacting the public. Communities are stressed and overwhelmed by the negative impacts of chronic vagrancy. Encampments, trash, and unlawful behavior have now become normal yet remain unacceptable. Federal and state governments continue to allocate millions of dollars into cities, yet nothing is changing. Studies show that a majority of the homeless population in California are refusing or unable to overcome their unhoused situation. Whether it’s addiction, mental health, or a combination of both, services today should be focused on aggressive treatment practices and relieve law enforcement and emergency medical responders from having to redundantly care for the chronic vagrancy issues the public faces on a daily basis.

The public has a right to understand how complex homeless issues are impacting funding initiatives and do not always provide significant changes for the homeless population. The public needs to start asking harder questions directed at funding and programs that use the Housing First model and the results of Project Room Key. The public needs more transparency because finding solutions that work are truly the public’s responsibility. How much longer can we stand by and not question the lack of measurable outcomes associated with the millions of taxpayer dollars that are being spent? Most if not all homeless services are free. However, we are not seeing any significant return on the public investment to say outcomes are working.

I’m asking the public to involve themselves in understanding the complexities associated with homelessness. Many government meetings are available on TV or online. There, the public has access to learn how funding is being approved and being proposed to solve homelessness. At a recent Inter Neighborhood Council meeting for the City of Oxnard, a public speaker asked how the Homeless Services Department intends to address the negative impacts of chronic homelessness? The Housing Director responded with vague phrases instead of providing concrete solutions. This clearly demonstrates that governments and service providers struggle with addressing chronic vagrancy and should start thinking about treatment-oriented approaches to minimize the current impacts we are seeing on our city streets.

In conclusion, I propose for a task force to be convened where local governments, community stakeholders, service providers, and interested citizens can organize a formal ad hoc committee to evaluate local government funding for homeless services. As a result, the committee would provide feedback and recommendations to improve outcomes. A committee would provide the public with the transparency needed in order to know why the current funding practices are not fixing the problem. 

We already know that millions of dollars have been spent on homelessness over the past five years. Local governments and the service provider community must be held accountable for the taxpayer money being spent to address this public crisis. It’s time for the public to get involved.   

Lang Martinez is a homeless advocate in Ventura County;


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