Gov. Newsom Focuses Singularly On Homelessness in State of the State

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Gov. Gavin Newsom prepares to give his State of the State speech on Feb. 19, 2020. (Andrew Nixon/CapRadio)

In a departure from tradition and a sign of how all-consuming the crisis has become, Gov. Gavin Newsom made a single issue the focus of his second state of the state speech Wednesday morning: homelessness.

After spending the first few minutes before the Legislature playing up California's economic accomplishments, Newsom pivoted to an issue he said represents an "institutional failure," one that disproportionally impacts black and Latino Californians — and one that he said must be the top priority of state government.

"No amount of progress can camouflage the most pernicious crisis in our midst, the ultimate manifestation of poverty, screaming for our attention: homelessness," he said. "Let's call it what it is — a disgrace — that the richest state in the richest nation, succeeding across so many sectors, is failing to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people."

Newsom's focus underscores both the magnitude of the crisis and the potential political consequences if he doesn't tackle it. Recent polling shows homelessness as one of the top concerns among Californians. At last official count, there were over 151,000 homeless people in California, more than 108,000 of whom were living in unsheltered conditions.

In stark words, Newsom laid out the stakes and victims of the homeless crisis, asserting that there is nothing compassionate about allowing fellow Californians to live on the streets, huddled in cars or makeshift encampments."

The governor used the address to lay out a framework for tackling the crisis, saying the state needs to use emergency actions to reduce homelessness "quickly and humanely." He said government must be "laser-focused" on getting mentally ill people off the streets and into treatment by providing stable funding to ensure long term results, and aggressively addressing the "underproduction of affordable housing in California."

Newsom proposed a new $750 million fund that he said will only pay for projects and services proven to work.

He also called for emergency measures to help cities and counties address immediate needs, and more sweeping reforms to mental health treatment and behavioral health laws to make it easier to compel people into treatment.

Newsom also called out other public officials, noting that "too often, no one wants to take responsibility," and that he has "even heard local officials proclaim: 'It's not my problem.' "

He called that response "shameful," and laid out proposals that take direct aim at local communities who have fought the construction of shelters and housing of all stripes. Newsom said he wants to expand on laws implemented last year to streamline the permitting and review process for navigation centers statewide, and exempt shelters and homeless housing from environmental review.

This year, the governor said, lawmakers should expand those exemptions to include all homeless shelters and supportive housing statewide. He also called for more accountability when it comes to how — or if — counties spend state money aimed at helping the mentally ill and building more housing.

"The public has lost patience, you have all lost patience and so have I," he said, noting that 40 counties have left $160 million in mental health funds just sitting in the bank, unspent.

"My message is this: Spend your mental health dollars by June 30th or we'll make sure they get spent for you," he said.

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It was a theme he returned to throughout the speech: holding cities and counties to account, while calling for partnerships between localities and state government.

"Right now, our imperative must be bringing governments together as working partners, not sparring partners in a court of law. So instead we are proposing strict accountability, comprehensive audits and a 'do-it-or-lose-it' policy to hold local governments responsible for results," he said. "Take action or lose access to this new funding."

The governor also tried to put the crisis in historical context, particularly around the issue of chronically homeless people who have what he called "complex behavioral health needs."

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Newsom noted that while federal and state governments shut down mental health institutions en masse five decades ago, there was never adequate investment in community mental health needs, and that changes in law made it more difficult for government to compel mental health treatment.

"Patients and their families were left with inadequate options to get the mental health care they needed," he said. "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."

Newsom called for a more integrative health care approach — one that links health care to housing.

"Health care and housing can no longer be divorced. After all, what’s more fundamental to a person’s well-being than a roof over their head?" he asked.

Some of the specific proposals Newsom laid out:

  • Making 286 state properties available to local governments for free to be used for homeless solutions
  • Sending more trailers to five municipalities — the city of Stockton and counties of Santa Clara, Riverside, Contra Costa and Sonoma — to be used for emergency housing (Oakland and Los Angeles County were already sent trailers earlier this year).
  • Massively increasing housing production by "cutting red tape"

Newsom said he understands that cities need to match housing production to their community, but that "doing nothing is no longer an option."

"I respect local control but not at the cost of creating a two-class California. Not at the cost of imperiling the California Dream," he said. "It’s time for California to say yes to housing. We cannot wait."