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Empty Words on Homelessness

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eye on the news

Empty Words on Homelessness

Governor Newsom talked a lot but said little. February 21, 2020
California
The Social Order

California governor Gavin Newsom devoted almost his entire State of the State address to homelessness, though observers who follow the issue recognized no new analysis or important proposals. Some critics charge that Newsom lacks strategic vision. Ten to 15 years ago, homelessness policymakers had vision to spare: they were ramping up their “campaign to end homelessness,” and Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, participated energetically in that nationwide push. It wasn’t successful, but the “end homelessness” rhetoric has endured. In his speech this week, Newsom asserted—as if we’re still in 2004—“I don’t think homelessness can be solved; I know homelessness can be solved.” Bold applause lines and “make no small plans” promises long ago ceased to be inspiring—or even credible—for most people.

The speech’s best ideas had to do with mental health. Newsom called for more use of conservatorships and outpatient civil commitment, both of which have the potential to stabilize thousands of seriously mentally ill Californians. Californians have heard hopeful proposals about mental health many times before, however; time will tell. Newsom praised a recent initiative in San Francisco that modestly expands conservatorship for the mentally ill, though local progressives opposed it.

Newsom said nothing about inpatient psychiatric care. Amid the flood of homelessness-policy reports coming out from public task forces and commissions, inpatient psychiatric care receives virtually no attention. It’s an area where the Trump administration, with its recent push to eliminate the so-called IMD Exclusion—which bans Medicaid funding for mentally ill adults in specialized psychiatric institutions—is doing more for the homeless than California’s leadership.

California particularly needs state leadership on homelessness due to the uniquely regional character of the crisis. Local policies on homelessness in California don’t stay confined within local borders. Regardless of what role personal choices did or didn’t play in their circumstances, the homeless clearly do exercise some preference about which communities are best to be homeless in. Progressive localities offering generous municipal services for the homeless often resent how they wind up providing those services for people from other communities, whose governments don’t invest as much in supportive housing, shelter, or outreach.

Newsom declined to offer state leadership on the issue of greatest regional importance: law enforcement. With the Ninth Circuit’s 2018 ruling in Martin v. Boise, which effectively prevents municipalities from outright bans on street camping, cities possess fewer options on disorder-related questions, such as how to deal with mass homeless encampments. Say you’re the mayor of a modest-size city in the Central Valley, and you want to do something about a downtown tent encampment. As soon as you start raising the issue, you get a letter from a Los Angeles-based lawyer threatening to sue if you don’t adhere to the ACLU’s dictates on encampment policy. Most local officials in that scenario will back down from trying their case in court. Thus, the practical effect of Martin is policymaking by legal advocates. This satisfies no one, but to what extent can cities push back? Can a mayor of, say, Sacramento expect broad-based support if he decides to make public disorder his Number One priority?

Oftentimes, the simplest explanation is the best. California politicians don’t want to commit themselves on public disorder because fence-sitting is the safer alternative. Polls in California show strong support for the goal of reducing public disorder but more ambiguous support as to the means. How much firmness the public would tolerate isn’t clear. One recent survey of 1,000 likely voters found that about three-fourths supported coupling encampment restrictions with a “right to shelter” policy. That’s not too far from the official position of the Ninth Circuit and legal advocates. Limiting street camping on the condition that cities be equipped to offer indoor shelter to every individual who may request it is unduly burdensome, even for well-off communities. But localities can expect little help or guidance from Governor Newsom on this thorny issue.

Given the current level of concern about homelessness in California, it would be strange had Newsom not devoted his State of the State to the topic. San Francisco’s and Los Angeles’s crises in the streets are internationally notorious, much like the South Bronx in the late 1970s, though at that point New York’s murder rate had yet to peak. Sometimes, policy challenges have to get worse before they get better. Californians’ confidence in a solution to homelessness is very low. Could the worst be yet to come?

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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