Homeless Should Be Forced Into Treatment, Says California GOP Gubernatorial Candidate John Cox

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California Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox stands in front of his campaign bus during a rally on May 4, 2021, at Miller Regional Park in Sacramento. Not pictured: the live 1,000-pound bear accompanying him. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

John Cox, a Republican candidate for California governor, said Monday that he would force homeless people into mental health or addiction treatment before providing them with housing as part of his effort to cut homelessness in half within five years.

In his second bid for governor, Cox also said he would step up enforcement against people living on the streets and work to speed housing construction. If elected, he would likely face fierce resistance to many of his proposals in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature.

“If someone is just insisting that they can live on the street, they either have to be arrested and put in jail or they have to be arrested and put into a place where they can get the treatment they need," he said in an interview. “If they don't want either of those, they can certainly leave California."

Cox, who made a fortune in real estate, is running in the forthcoming recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. He ran against Newsom in 2018 and lost badly. He's never won political office despite numerous attempts. This time, he's one of several Republicans running, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is expected to release a homelessness plan Tuesday.

A date has not yet been set for the recall election.

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California is home to about 12% of the nation's population but more than a quarter of its homeless people, with roughly 161,500 people experiencing homelessness as of January 2020, according to the most recent federal data. About a quarter of homeless people in the state were experiencing severe mental illness in 2019, according to a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Newsom has made tackling homelessness one of his top priorities, dedicating his 2020 State of the State address to the topic and pledging to appoint a homelessness czar, which he has not yet done. While the COVID-19 pandemic changed the state's focus, Newsom last year launched a program to convert hotel and motel rooms into permanent housing for homeless people.

Cox would take an opposite tack, requiring people who need it to get treatment for addiction or mental illness before they can get housing. He said if pop star Britney Spears can be placed under a conservatorship, it should be possible to place people living on the streets who need help into a similar arrangement — generally done when people are deemed unable to control their lives.

In 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation allowing San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles counties to place chronically homeless people into such arrangements if they have a serious mental health or substance use disorder. San Francisco moved ahead with a narrowly tailored pilot program in 2019, though it has barely been used.

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Cox, who is prone to campaigning with props — including a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear — is bringing an 8-foot ball of trash on his statewide bus tour to tout his homelessness plan. In a news release, he said it's supposed to symbolize “the blight the homeless — and current homeless policies — have inflicted on California neighborhoods.” He said in an interview that he blames the problem on government failures, not people who are homeless.

Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, called Cox's plan “terrible” and said his use of a ball of trash “specifically conveys that he believes that these people are trash.”

Broadly, she said Cox's plan “reflects a candidate for public office who does not understand the fundamental structural issues that produce homelessness faster than we can end it.”

Research shows putting people in treatment without housing does not work, and that counties do not have enough beds in the behavioral health system to treat everyone anyway, DiPietro said. The plan also has an over-reliance on law enforcement, she said. She does, however, support efforts to lower the cost of housing construction, which is also part of Cox's plan.

Cox on Monday also said he would challenge a court decision that blocks Los Angeles from enforcing a sidewalk camping ban until enough housing is available, and that he would seek to roll back parts of a voter-backed initiative that reduced some penalties for non-violent offenses.