California ‘Laser-Focused’ on Homelessness, Mental Health Reform, Newsom Says

February 20, 2020 Updated: February 21, 2020
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California’s homelessness crisis is a disgrace, and the apathy surrounding the issue is shameful, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Feb. 19 in his State of the State address.

“Let’s call it what it is. It’s a disgrace that the richest state in the richest nation—succeeding across so many sectors—is falling so far behind to properly house, heal, and humanely treat so many of its own people,” Newsom said in his 45-minute speech.

“Every day, the California Dream is dimmed by the wrenching reality of families, children, and seniors living unfed on a concrete bed,” he said.

Departing from the norm of past governors who have covered a wide range of issues in State of the State addresses, Newsom said he chose instead to devote most of his speech to the affordable housing shortage, as well as getting the mentally ill among the homeless off the streets and into treatment.

“We will be laser-focused on getting the mentally ill out of tents and into treatment,” he said.

“As Californians, we pride ourselves on our unwavering sense of compassion and justice for humankind—but there’s nothing compassionate about allowing fellow Californians to live on the streets, huddled in cars or makeshift encampments. And, there’s nothing just about sidewalks and street corners that aren’t safe and clean for everybody,” Newsom said.

“The hard truth is for too long we’ve ignored the problem. We turned away when it wasn’t our sister, our brother, our neighbor, or our friend. And, when it was a loved one, help so often wasn’t there. Most of us experienced homelessness as a pang of guilt, not a call to action.”

The roots of homelessness go back to the deinstitutionalization policies of the 1970s and the failure of governments to fund alternative community mental health services as promised, Newsom said. These “massive failures” and the “disinvestment in our social safety net” led to the homeless crisis, made worse by widening income inequality and a statewide housing shortage.

“State mental hospitals were closed, but the promise of community mental health was never realized,” Newsom said.

A homeless person walks by a tent
A person makes his way out of his tent among a row of tents along a sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2019. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

“The cumulative impact made county jails the de facto mental health institutions. Patients and their families were left with inadequate options to get the mental health care they needed. In a politically polarized world, liberals and conservatives blame one another for these failures. Historically speaking, both are right. It’s time to stop pointing fingers and join hands in a transformational solution.”

In 2005, when the state started point-in-time counts of the homeless population, there were over 188,000 homeless people in California—35,000 more than today, he said.

“Even at that peak, the state did not treat the issue with the urgency required. Since then, it has almost become normalized, right?—concentrated over years in skid rows and tent cities in big urban centers. But now, it’s no longer isolated,” Newsom said. “In fact, some of the most troubling increases have occurred in rural areas, small towns, and remote parts of our state.”

Apathy and Blame

Too often, nobody wants to take responsibility for the homeless problem, Newsom said.

“I even heard a local official just recently proclaim loudly, ‘Not my problem.’ Servants of the public that are too damn busy pointing fingers to step up and help? That’s shameful,” he said. “Every homeless Californian living on a boulevard of broken dreams is a casualty of institutional failures—a person who’s fallen through every possible hole in the safety net.”

Newsom urged lawmakers to change the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63)—not to adjust the formula on how much money each county gets, but to spend those funds to help the street homeless, at-risk and foster youth, and those involved in the criminal justice system.

“We must also expand the kinds of services it can pay for, specifically addiction treatment. We also need to stop tolerating open drug use on our streets,” he said.

The state should compel counties to spend reserve funds to solve the homeless crisis by lowering the 33 percent reserve threshold they are allowed to hold back, Newsom said, adding that 40 of 58 counties are currently holding back more than $160 million that could help people get off the streets and into treatment.

“My message is this: Spend your mental health dollars by June 30, or we’ll make sure those dollars get spent for you,” Newsom said. “We’ve got to get serious about this stuff.”

Rather than imposing controversial Right to Shelter legislation, Newsom said he wants the state to partner with counties and cities to improve accountability with comprehensive audits and a “do-it-or-lose-it” policy. To track progress, the state will establish a unified homelessness data system to capture accurate, local information.

Newsom urged state lawmakers to support his 2020–21 state budget proposal calling for $750 million to create a new California Access to Housing Fund.

“Based on the severity of the crisis, we need early legislative action to set up the legal authorities to enter into contracts with service providers now,” he said. “That’s why I’m asking you not to wait months. We don’t have months. The public has lost patience. I know you’ve lost patience. I’ve lost patience.”

To reverse decades of neglect, the state will “need more than one-time funding,” he said. Instead, it will have to find new sources of sustainable revenue to replace California’s “scattershot approach” with more focused crisis management, he said.

Newsom pointed to his recent executive order to provide travel trailers and services to dozens of homeless families as a step in the right direction. The state is also allowing 286 state properties—vacant lots, fairgrounds, armories, and other state buildings—to be used by local governments, for free, for homelessness solutions.

Epoch Times Photo
Trailers are set up in south Los Angeles for homeless families to move into, on Feb. 13, 2020. (Courtesy of Governor Gavin Newsom’s Office)

“Lease templates are ready to go, and we’re ready for partnerships. Let’s move on those,” he said.

Last year, the state committed $1.75 billion to boost housing construction as part of a $7 billion affordable housing package, Newsom said.

The Economy

California remains the fifth-largest economy in the world with 118 consecutive months of net job growth—about 3.4 million jobs created since the Great Recession—and home to nearly 4 million small businesses.

In addition, more than half of all U.S. venture capital still flows to California companies, Newsom said.

“We’ve averaged 3.8 percent GDP growth over five years—compared, respectfully, to 2.5 percent national growth,” said Newsom, adding that one in seven new jobs in the U.S. since 2010 were created in the Golden State. “Yes, California today is an enterprising, modernizing, pluralizing, unionizing, nation-state of opportunity.”

Newsom touted the “largest rainy-day fund in state history,” and achieving the highest credit rating in nearly two decades. “And, we’ve disappeared the infamous wall of debt.”

Newsom took a few shots at his political opponents, including President Donald Trump, though he never mentioned him by name.

“So, when you hear the boasts, bleats, and tweets of Washington politicians tripping over themselves to take credit for the economy, remember the real VIPs of America’s GDP—the millions of California workers, investors, and entrepreneurs who are actually producing their own California Dreams,” Newsom said.

He credited former President Barack Obama for the economic recovery following the Great Recession that gripped California and the nation more than a decade ago.

“California is the rocket fuel powering America’s resurgence, that—let me be clear—was put into motion by President Barack Obama,” Newsom said.

Exchanging Barbs

Newsom criticized the Trump administration for funding cuts at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Honestly, this partnership should be a given,” he said. “But empty words and symbolic gestures won’t mask a 15 percent across-the-board cut to HUD’s budget. I’m old enough to remember when HUD was in the housing business. And I’m hopeful one day they will be again.”

HUD Secretary Ben Carson was in California last week to speak about the homelessness crisis and promise federal help. He spoke at the Unhoused summit co-hosted by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and the USC Sol Price Center for Innovation.

Trump, who was on a whirlwind tour of California on the same day as Newsom’s State of the State, said if Newsom can’t fix the homelessness crisis in California, he will.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. President Donald Trump ceremonially signs legislation related to water use at a rally with local farmers in Bakersfield, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2020. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Referring to spent needles and human waste on the streets and sidewalks of California’s major cities, Trump said something has to be done.

“I’ve seen what’s happened to LA. I see what’s happened to San Francisco. I see what’s happened to some great cities,” Trump told reporters. “They have to clean it up. … If they can’t do it themselves, we’re going to do it. The federal government is going to take it over, and we’re going to do it.”

Republican Rebuttal

Following Newsom’s speech, Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron (Escondido) issued a statement applauding the governor for making the fight against homelessness a priority. She called for more bipartisan cooperation, but panned the housing policies of her Democratic political rivals.

“While poor policies in the past have gotten us here, it’s time we look forward to address homelessness, mental health, substance use, and incarceration issues one person, one family at a time,” Waldron said.

“The governor is right that building more housing is needed. Unfortunately, Democratic policies have stood in the way of housing production for years. That needs to change.”

Bureaucratic hurdles and delays stemming from well-intentioned environmental laws that have been hijacked by special interest groups and rent controls that have discouraged new construction, have driven up costs and stymied attempts to increase the housing supply, she said.

“Cutting red tape and using funding with intentionality is critical to achieving the results we need. We must have accountability,” Waldron said. “It’s time to bring all levels of government together to address the most pressing issue facing our state. I am excited to work on these issues in a bipartisan, solution-driven manner.”

Political Analysis

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe told The Epoch Times it’s unusual for a governor to focus so much on problems in a State of the State address.

“This is almost unheard of as far as I know,” she said.

“Homelessness, in the last Public Policy Institute of California poll, was the was the No. 1 issue of concern to Californians—no more the economy, no more immigration, no more the environment or even healthcare,” said Jeffe, who had attended the Unhoused summit.

California’s political leaders, including Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have realized homelessness is a key issue for voters as the state’s March 3 primary election draws near, she said.

“If homelessness isn’t dealt with, it will hurt their political aspirations. Homelessness is an albatross around their necks,” Jeffe said.

She questioned the motivation behind the sudden interest in homelessness, wondering aloud if politicians care more about the people or the polls.

“Are they worried about homelessness because it’s coming too close? Or, are they worried about homelessness because it’s a terrible crisis?” Jeffe said.

“We don’t know.”