Newsom Fumbles State of the State Speech

by Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness

“After all, 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.”

On February 19, 2020 California Gov. Gavin Newsom gave his State of the State speech, focusing in large part on addressing homelessness. In many ways this was brave, as politicians have been ignoring this issue on the state and federal level since mass homelessness hit the country in the early 1980s, figuring that the issue was unwinnable. The following Sunday, former SF Mayor Willie Brown criticized the move in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Speaking from a political perspective that failed to recognize human suffering, he noted that Newsom was making a political mistake trying to address an issue that he won’t be able to make much of a dent on. Of course, Brown missed the real point. Newsom will not make much of a difference because he, like many before him, is not doing enough. Instead of going big and bold, he is just tinkering and talking fake solutions that will not solve homelessness, or even make a visible difference.

Homelessness is solvable. It isn’t an incurable disease. The fix is to house poor people. How do we pay for that? We can either cut current state services or we can tax the rich.

Back to Newsom. What exactly is he proposing in his speech? He certainly is not outright proposing to tax the rich. However, the speech is not short on ideas, so we are going to tease out what he is proposing here.

Reducing Poverty

Newsom stated there are 1.3 million fewer folks living in poverty. This is fantastic news. The poverty-fighting initative Newsom led was to double earned income tax credit, and while it does not extend to undocumented workers, cash in the pocket of some is better then none. However, it should be noted that California still has the nation’s highest poverty rate when you take housing costs into account. Statewide, 18% of our residents live in poverty. If you are looking for a bold move to end poverty you will not find it here in this speech.

Homelessness

Newsom tries to appease both sides of the homeless debate, taking cues from state Sen. Scott Wiener, trying to sound compassionate while recognizing how bad it is for housed people who have to witness poverty.

“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.”

Let’s deconstruct this a bit. I am going to zero in on the word “allowing”. What does that suggest? Well instead of acknowledging the reality, which is that homeless people are forced to live on the streets because the cost of housing overcomes their income, we as a society, with our liberal values, are allowing people to live on the streets. So what is the reverse? The reverse is not allowing, which indicates a criminal justice approach. This is classic Newsom. He carved out his career path through divisiveness and crafting social controls on the poor, and the deliberate phrasing of his wording allows him to clothe harsh policy in a loving embrace.

Temporary Solutions to Homelessness

Newsom has been focused, much like Trump, on shelter, despite his anti-shelter record from his time as mayor. Here in San Francisco, he cut the number of beds in shelters by 30% and drop-in center capacity by 50%, all while advocating the criminalization of unhoused people. However, something changed since then: a court ruling out of Boise, Idaho halts the ability to criminalize homeless people who are not offered anywhere to go. Shelter qualifies. So likely, Newsom realized he needs to expand shelter in order for cities to legally continue to conduct sweeps.

But of course if folks have shelter, they are still homeless. The health outcomes are not much better. If it is done well, it is a step up for homeless folks. But often times, it does not work because disabilities such as PTSD prevent people from being able to stay in congregate shelter. Also shelter costs a lot, sometimes even surpassing the cost of housing. Homeless folks would rather just have the opportunity to have housing.

The other thing about shelter, is that shelters fill up if there is no housing to move into. We could be like New York and massively expand our shelter system and the millions of dollars will keep adding up, sucking all other homeless resources into it. We would rather support a shelter system that gives temporary respite on the way to housing, and recognizes it is not for everyone.

Making State Lands Available

“Today, we are making 286 state properties — vacant lots, fairgrounds, armories and other state buildings — available to be used by local governments, for free, for homelessness solutions.”

Now there is not much we can use of these lands in SF, but across the state they may be helpful. We have already used some state lands, thanks to legislation passed by Assemblymember Phil Ting under freeways. However all of the state land would be used for temporary uses, again, not permanent. The counties would have to go through the legislature to turn state lands into housing.

Ongoing Funding

Newsom mentioned on-going funding. It is thrilling that Newsom is now recognizing this. Weird thing is, all his budget proposals are one time. So I think this was aspirational. In order to address homelessness, we need on-going dedicated funding. There is a huge disparity between rents and incomes and that is not going away any time soon.

Moving Current Homeless Spending Into New Fund

“In the budget I just submitted, I proposed a new California Access to Housing Fund, and, with it, a whole new way of investing in homeless solutions.”

This is a very strange one. Apparently, the new buzzword is “regional collaboration” which is about as jargon-filled as you get. Governments are organized by county, state and federal, so everything flows that way. We are not sure what it means, or what problem it is trying to solve, but it would allow nonprofits to apply directly to a new level of government for funding. What it appears to do is create a whole new bureaucracy between state and local administrations, and more bureaucracy means another cut of the already way too tiny $750 million in funding. So yeah, we are not feeling it, and we are not sure who is — the Assembly Budget Committee does not seem to be, and neither is the state Legislative Analyst Office, which has deep concerns.

On the sunny side, this funding could be used for prevention, rent subsidies, housing units, board and cares and social services, which are all badly needed. Of course $750 million would pay for about 375 new units, or about 24,000 housing subsidies in market rate units to get folks off the streets. To give context, according to Point-in-Time (PIT) counts we have about 150,000 homeless people in California. The PIT is considered an undercount, and the best federal practices suggest multiplying by 2.8 to get at the number of souls experiencing homelessness each year, which would bring us to 420,000. Plus this is not all new funding, he is rebranding emergency funding that is already supporting shelters across the state, so if the funding is moved, likely some of those shelters would have to cut beds.

Expanding Conservatorship

“Look — clearly, it’s time to respond to the concerns of experts who argue that thresholds for conservatorships are too high and need to be revisited.”

So the real experts are mental health consumers, who have consistently opposed conservatorship. The problem is not that people are service resistant, it’s that no help exists that meets their needs. In other words the system is resistant to serving people. When Newsom was Supervisor he paid lip service to treatment on demand, but he didn’t do anything to make that a reality. When he became Mayor, he slaughtered behavioral health treatment — cutting $40 million in direct homeless and behavioral health services in SF. The high visibility of acute mental health and substance use issues on the streets today is a direct result of Newsom’s cuts. Now he claims those suffering need to be conserved because they are supposedly refusing non-existent or inappropriate services, and he wants to make it easier to lock these same individuals up.

The details of what Newsom is talking about is shifting more power to the police to decide who gets detained in a hospital. Newsom supported a recent proposal where police can temporarily lock someone in a psych ward up to eight times before being deemed a threat to self or others — even if doctors find no potential danger from the person. But after the eighth lock-up, they’re deemed a threat automatically. That law passed, (nobody has gotten any help from it) and there are about five other proposed laws to make the law even looser, going as far as to say being homeless is equal to being gravely disabled and meets the criteria for losing your freedom and getting locked up.

Now we don’t know which of these laws Newsom is referring to but all of the proposed laws completely miss the point and don’t really address the crisis. Folks are in mental health crisis because they have an untreated — or untreatable — illness. They should not be punished because the state has neglected their care. Anyway there are not enough beds for folks already — folks are stuck in jail because of a lack of hospital beds across the state. Plus locked beds are crazy expensive. And another thing — the outcomes are worse than serving people in a less restrictive environment. Sure, there are some tweaks to the administration of conservatorships that would help ensure those who truly need to be conserved are conserved, but that is very different from changing who should be conserved, which is what Newsom is proposing. We need to focus on getting folks stabilized in housing, and building up our community system of care. That takes real money.

Housing

Newsom gives a big nod to SB 50 which would cut red tape for creating housing, and in doing so, eliminates local communities control and its ability to leverage additional affordable housing units. The problem is that in densely populated gentrifying areas development often causes displacement, and he fails to embrace in his speech the assurance of meaningful rent control across the state.

Reforming Proposition 63

Prop 63 is the Mental Health Services Act that passed in 2004 and taxes millionaires 1% to pay for mental health care. It was a great bill in many ways, and some of the counties had tremendous success using the resources. SF got short changed in the formula, however, and many counties leave the money sitting there unspent in part due to negligence and in part due to unsteady stream of funding. Newsom is right to try and force the counties to spend it, and to lower the threshold of what can be left unspent. He wants to shift all the funding over to homelessness however, which is going to cut some great programs out there that rely on the funding to keep folks in housing.

Medi-Cal Reform

“The problem has persisted for decades — caused by massive failures in our mental health system and disinvestment in our social safety net — exacerbated by widening income inequality and California’s housing shortage.

The hard truth is we ignored the problem.”

This is an attempt to leverage Medi-Cal dollars to have more prevention, behavioral health funding and utilizing whole person care, which uses these funds to focus in on particular vulnerable populations and have comprehensive care for them. Here in SF, whole person care focuses critical services on a group of high need homeless individuals. Newsom will have several federal waivers up this year, and if they are not signed, we will be losing a lot that we depend on now. The problem is that the federal government may not be so eager to sign them.

Project Homeless Connect

“15 years ago, when I was Mayor of San Francisco, in the face of long odds and stiff opposition, we established Project Homeless Connect to bring local government services directly to people. It has been wildly successful and adopted in 250 cities.”

Newsom loves to portray himself as a profile in courage, standing up to adversity and pushing unpopular stands in the best interest of his impoverished wards. This is where we can all clear our throats. No one opposed Project Homeless Connect. It is a one day services fair for homeless people. It is a great charity program that leverages volunteers and in-kind donations. Nothing more.

You can read the speech for yourself at the site below. There are lots of great things in there, although not near enough. There are hints that big bold things may be coming but very few details. And then there are some really bad ideas. A for bringing up the issue. C for so-so effort. F for promoting loss of liberty and leaving out what really needs to be done. Newsom can do much better, and has to do much better if he wants to turn this issue around for real.

Originally published by the Street Sheet newspaper. For more coverage of poverty and homelessness in California visit us at streetsheet.org

The STREET SHEET is a San Francisco-based street newspaper published by the Coalition on Homelessness, dedicated to covering issues of homelessness and poverty.

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