Credit Newsom for his efforts to alleviate homelessness, not that he has much choice

San Francisco, CA - Men hang out at a homeless encampment in an alley off Grant Street in San Francisco's Chinatown.  Steeped in history, culture and wealth, San Francisco now has a dubious reputation for persistent homelessness, rampant crime and a business exodus.  (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Credit Newsom for his efforts to alleviate homelessness, not that he has much choice

California Politics

George Skelton

February 12, 2024

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s treatment and not the tent ballot measure would only make a small dent in homelessness. But it’s still the largest effort ever by a California governor to address the growing problem.

Proposition 1 on the March 5 primary ballot would essentially shift current mental health funding to prioritize treating homeless people with mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions. It would also authorize the sale of $6.38 billion in bonds to build mental health facilities and housing for homeless people receiving treatment.

Give Newsom credit for seriously wading into this mess and trying to fix it, not that he has a choice.

He’s the governor. He owns the problem. It is his duty to lead the resolution efforts. And he tried. But under his watch, homelessness has only gotten worse.

When Newsom became governor in 2019, there were 151,000 homeless Californians. At last count there were 181,000. That’s 28% of the country’s total homeless population.

Newsom has national political ambitions. Having been governor of America’s homeless capital would not be a good talking point in a 2028 presidential race. But there are also opportunities here: He could show the rest of America how homelessness can be controlled, and even reduced.

But let’s face the facts: The biggest dilemma for solving homelessness in California is the extraordinarily high cost of housing in this overcrowded state. The average home in California costs more than twice the national average. The average home price in California rose above $800,000 last year.

There is a shortage of supply to meet the high demand. Blame land costs, limited permits, often legitimate environmental concerns, protracted lawsuits, and NIMBYism (not in my backyard).

Low-income tenants in particular are having a hard time; many spend more than half their wages on housing. If they lose their job, there is no other solution than a family member’s or friend’s couch, the old car or the street.

The governor and Legislature have cut red tape that is slowing housing construction and increasing costs, but progress has been minimal. Changes in government policy are not implemented overnight.

Newsom has played a good game on homelessness and taken several meaningful actions, spending tens of billions even as the problem worsens.

Moments after being sworn in as governor, the former mayor of San Francisco lamented a homeless epidemic that should keep us all awake at night.

In February 2020, Newsom devoted his entire State of the State address to homelessness. That was unprecedented.

The public has lost patience. You have lost all patience, he told lawmakers. And I’ve lost my patience. …I know homelessness can be solved. This is our calling.

With Proposition 1, Newsom is trying to target unsheltered people with mental illness or addiction problems and bring as many as possible under one roof. There wouldn’t be many.

The legislative analyst writes in the state’s official voter guide that 4,350 housing units would be created, just over half of which would be for veterans. Over there


will also include new treatment facilities for 6,800 people. Newsom has hyped the housing count higher, but I agree with the unbiased analyst numbers.

The number of homes built by the bond would reduce homelessness statewide by only a small amount, the analyst wrote.

But if the number were reduced at all, it would be significant progress.

We must remember the past.

Much of today’s dilemma stems from the fact that Gov. Ronald Reagan and the Legislature closed psychiatric hospitals 57 years ago. They dumped patient care to the provinces. But little money was provided for treatment. Many former patients self-medicated with drugs and alcohol and ended up on the streets.

The problem was ignored by state and local governments for decades.

But Democrat Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento focused on mental illness after being elected to the state Assembly in the 1990s. In 2004, he successfully sponsored a ballot initiative that raised taxes by 1 percentage point on incomes above $1 million to raise money for local mental health services.

It was called the Mental Health Services Act or, unofficially, the Millionaire Tax, and that’s what Newsom is trying to change to put more emphasis on treating the mentally ill or addicted who have fallen through the cracks.

to the street


We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, Newsom claims.

Steinberg, who later became Senate leader and is currently mayor of Sacramento, is embracing the governors’ proposed change to his old initiative.

In 2004, I thought I had written the perfect law, Steinberg says. But after twenty years, it is very important to review and update these laws and initiatives.

The millionaire tax now raises about $3.5 billion annually. Almost all the money goes to the provinces.

Provinces have spent the money well, says Steinberg. But they haven’t spent enough on the people who are sickest. And those are the people who live in misery on the streets.

Polls show Proposition 1 will be passed by a wide margin, and Newsom is expected to spend more than $10 million to ensure it happens. Opponents have only a few hundred dollars to make their argument that the measure essentially robs Peter to pay Paul.

Many other mental health treatment programs would lose funding to pay for Newsom’s priorities, they argue. And they are right.

Steinberg says they can tap other government funding for mental health treatments.

Newsom’s proposal is not a panacea. But it’s better than a band-aid. It is a treatment for those who need it most. And it’s worth a try.


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