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Gavin Newsom Zeroes In On Homelessness In His 2020 State Of The State Address

Andrew Nixon/CapRadio
California Gov. Gavin Newsom focused on issues around housing and homelessness in his second State of the State address Feb. 19, 2020.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made the unusual decision Wednesday to devote his entire annual State of the State address to California’s homelessness crisis, which has been an issue for decades.

Newsom said that those experiencing homelessness in California represent “a casualty of institutional failures” and have fallen through holes in the state’s safety net.

“This crisis was not created overnight and it will not be solved overnight — or even in one year,” the governor said. “But as a state, we must do everything we can to ensure no Californian is homeless.”

The speech seemed to have some level of bipartisan support, but Republican political consultant Luis Alvarado said that Newsom would have to cross the aisle to deal with an issue of this scale.

“It's important to recognize that the governor does have a huge fight ahead of him and he's going to need the support of Democrats and Republicans," Alvarado said. “It's gonna be a great fight for Californians but Republicans have demonstrated that they are going to stand up and be partners of this process.”

Here are five key takeaways from Newsom’s speech:

Emergency Housing Trailers Are Headed Around The State, Including To Stockton

Newsom signed an executive order last month deploying emergency housing trailers and services around the state to aid homeless families and seniors. The first trailers were deployed to Oakland and Los Angeles County.

The next round of trailers are now headed to Santa Clara, Riverside, Contra Costa and Sonoma counties and the city of Stockton, Newsom announced in his speech.

Also as a part of that executive order, the state is making 286 state properties available to be used for homelessness solutions by local governments for free today. These properties include vacant lots, fairgrounds, armories and more.

Cutting Red Tape Around Housing Development

Newsom also made clear in his speech that he wants the state to “eliminate roadblocks to housing and shelter” by streamlining the development process.

Newsom signed a law last year exempting all housing and shelters for homeless people in Los Angeles from environmental review, and said in his speech that he wants to expand the bill to include all homeless shelters and supportive housing across the state. 

Newsom also called for getting to “‘yes’ on these innovative approaches” to homeless housing cutting red tape around innovative models of homeless housing like hotel/motel conversions and tiny homes, and for a commitment to make it easier to build affordable, multifamily homes near transit and downtowns. This is what SB 50, a controversial housing measure, aimed to do, but the bill failed a few weeks ago.

“We need more housing, not more delays,” he said.

Compelling Mentally Ill People Experiencing Homelessness Into Care

A point Newsom mentioned multiple times in his remarks is the connection between health care and housing.Throughout his speech, he pushed for the state to create solutions that deal with both of these struggles. 

As part of this, Newsom pointed to hopes to aid mentally ill people who are not capable of accepting help and treatment in the first place.In his speech, he said that Laura’s Law, which allows counties to compel certain mentally ill people into outpatient mental health treatment, is too hard to use.

He said the state needs to remove some of the conditions on counties trying to implement the law and compel mentally ill people into care.

Bills in recent years to eliminate barriers to providing the necessary services have failed. Counties can also currently choose whether or not to adopt Laura’s Law. Some advocates have pushed to make it mandatory statewide for all counties to adopt Laura’s Law, and a proposed bill would require counties to opt out of the law instead of opting into it.

Revamping The Mental Health Services Act To Support Mentally Ill Homeless People

On the topic of mental health and homelessness, Newsom also called for reforming the Mental Health Services Act, which distributes funds from a 1 % tax on personal income greater than $1 million to counties for mental illness prevention and community-based services.

Newsom said he wants to reform the act to focus funding on homeless people, at-risk and foster youth, and people involved in the criminal justice system. He also wants to expand what kinds of services the funds can pay for to include addiction treatment.

“Our state is too great to have to suffer with the problem that so many of our people are dealing with, both in our cities and our communities and our families,” Republican Assemblymember Marie Waldron said about Newsom’s speech on homelessness. “I am excited to be able to work in a bipartisan manner on this extremely important issue, which includes mental health services as well as substance use disorders.”

But some mental health advocates are wary of funneling money primarily toward people who are homeless or incarcerated.

“We believe it is important for the state to consider the need for additional investments, rather than shifts,” said Michelle Doty Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California, in a statement. “We know now more than ever that we cannot wait to deliver interventions until individuals have been institutionalized or are on the streets. We caution against embracing this ‘fail first’ approach."

Newsom called out counties in the speech, saying that they are currently sitting on over $160 million in unspent funds from the act. He ended his remarks on the Mental Health Services Act with this message to counties: “Spend your mental health dollars by June 30, or we’ll make sure those dollars get spent for you.”

A Unified Data System Around Homelessness

A theme throughout the speech was Newsom’s wish for a policy of shared responsibility throughout the state for the homelessness crisis. As part of that, he called for a unified homelessness data system to track progress and local information in one place.

He proposed “strict accountability” and audits, saying he wanted to hold local governments responsible for results and take away access to new homelessness funding if local authorities don’t use it.

“I really appreciated the way he framed what we believe is a balance of increased accountability, a sharing of responsibility, between city, county and state government and a commitment for an ongoing funding source,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said.


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