During a meeting Thursday that included the nation’s housing secretary, two former governors and mayors of some of California’s biggest cities, USC researchers released results of a new poll that underscored the urgent nature of the gathering.
Homelessness — not climate change or immigration — is the single biggest problem in California, according to about 1,000 likely voters surveyed by USC.
Policymakers on Thursday were eager to talk about it.
“Declare an emergency,” former California Gov. Gray Davis told the crowd of more than 300 gathered for the “Unhoused” forum co-hosted by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and the USC Sol Price Center for Innovation.
“And not only house, but treat, the homeless.”
The poll findings highlighted the sense of urgency that brought federal, state and local leaders and policymakers to the campus for a half-day discussion on how to provide housing and other solutions to end what all appeared to agree is a humanitarian crisis.
Besides Davis, key attendees included U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, fellow former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the mayors of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sacramento and San Diego, as well as several state legislators and local officials.
A chorus called the Urban Voices Project Choir, made up of people who have experienced homelessness, kicked off the more than four-hour session with a few gospel-flavored numbers. Later, a young woman, Marquesha Babers, recited a poem about growing up homeless and asking Santa for a real Christmas in her own home.

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US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks during Unhoused: Addressing Homelessness in California at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA on Thursday, February 13, 2020. The program was at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and USC Price Center for Social Innovation. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
But agreements on concrete solutions to the crisis were not as easy to hear.
Carson, in Southern California as part of his “Driving Affordable Housing Across America” bus tour, called for bipartisan collaboration on the issue. He outlined a plan to engage faith-based communities in a sort of adopt-a-homeless-person program.
The Trump Administration, Carson said, plans to call on “every church, synagogue and mosque” to take on the care of a homeless person or a homeless family, with the goal of making them self-sufficient in a year’s time.
If every faith-based group in the country signed up, Carson continued, the effort would “pretty much wipe out homelessness” across the nation.
Last September, President Trump weighed in on California’s struggle to address homelessness by directing administration officials to get involved and crack down if necessary. Trump’s criticisms generated responses from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Later that month, Secretary Carson paid a visit to Skid Row in Los Angeles.
“He said ‘Let’s figure out what we can do to work together,’” Garcetti recalled of Carson’s Skid Row stop. The mayor added that it’s not a “new bright idea” that is needed, but a focus on tactical efforts to make the system — all the various levels of government, policies and jurisdictions — work better.
The housing secretary’s Southern California visit included a stop on Wednesday in Riverside to tour a collection of homes built by a local church to provide affordable housing and other services.
In his speech on Thursday, Carson emphasized the need for compassion and putting aside political differences to work together on the twin issues of housing affordability and homelessness. HUD will awarding more than $2 billion to homeless assistance programs.
“There is no single issue more important than the ideal of a place to live that is safe, decent and affordable,” said Carson, who was thanked by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his own opening remarks for rearranging his schedule to attend the symposium.
But former state Sen. Kevin de León, who is running for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, scoffed at Carson’s speech, saying it was “heavy on faith-based platitudes but nothing substantial.”
California, with more than 150,000 homeless people in need of housing, is home to about half the nation’s unsheltered population, according to 2019 statistics that showed the state’s homeless population grew by about 21,000 over the previous year. Los Angeles County has about 60,000 homeless people, with more than two-thirds living on the street.
The online poll conducted by the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, the co-hosts for the symposium, surveyed 1,000 people during the first week of February. The findings echoed concerns cited in a November 2019 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Of the respondents, 22.9% ranked homelessness as the top problem. Other issues lagged behind: 14.8% named climate change/environment, 9.2% said immigration, and another 7.5% simply answered “Trump.”
The poll asked people their views about the nature of homelessness. More than seven in ten (72.3%) said the root cause of homelessness is the high cost of a dwelling, while a similar number (75%) believe “most” people who are homeless suffer from mental illness or some other health problem.
But the challenge for elected officials and others is agreeing on how to house homeless people, where to put that housing, what services they need, and whether there is the political will and money to do it as quickly and expansively as needed. The organizers of the symposium, which included three panel discussions involving state and local elected officials, urged people to talk about some short- and long-term solutions by participants.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg called for a “Silicon Valley moment” to come up with innovations that could lead to housing on a large scale. Such housing, he suggested, could be smaller, easier and faster to build, and less expensive to build and own. He also said that if people truly believe homelessness is a public emergency in California, then cities need to set some mandates to fix the problem. The state, he added, should set “aggressive but reasonable” benchmarks to reduce the homeless population.

Steinberg, who co-chairs Gov. Newsom’s task force on homelessness with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, said money is available to begin to fight the problem.
Even if there’s money to get only half the unhoused population off the street, he said, that’s what a city’s mandate should be.
“The accountability should be commensurate with the resources.”