California just became the nation’s most homeless state, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has had enough. In no uncertain terms, he insists on accountability — from others.
Weeks after the federal government reported that his administration has presided over California’s ascent to the ignominious height of the homelessness ranks, the governor and self-styled presidential contender unveiled a state budget proposal promising no additional effort to correct the glaring failure. Worse, he persisted in his buck-stops-there blaming of local politicians for a statewide humanitarian crisis.
“This homelessness crisis is out of control,” Newsom said Tuesday in presenting his proposed budget, sounding more like a frustrated bystander than the chief executive of what he has often called a “nation-state.” “People that criticize it are right. We need to see progress. And that means we have to have a higher level of accountability.”
The governor called for legislation to force cities and counties to make the progress on homelessness that has been so wanting. And he reiterated his claim that when he was mayor of San Francisco, he didn’t dream of expecting the state to help.
“What we don’t want is 476 different strategies and goals … just every city running in different directions,” he added. “We’ve got to start aligning the goals” — all of which sounds like a job for, you know, a governor.
Newsom, whose communications staff has documented his avid personal participation in clearing homeless camps, was particularly fixated on that politically powerful symbol of the festering problem. If local officials don’t mount more determined efforts to bulldoze the state’s burgeoning shantytowns, he said, he would be “hard-pressed to make a case to the Legislature to provide them one dollar more.”
Ironically, the governor leveled this ultimatum in the course of presenting a budget that largely maintains status quo spending on homelessness services and cuts housing programs. Facing what he called a “modest deficit” for the first time in his tenure, the governor continued to rebuff calls to dedicate continuing spending to homelessness, much as he did throughout the go-go surpluses of his first term.
Sharon Rapport, California policy director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, said the governor’s call for local accountability “should be matched by accountability from the state for a budget plan that is predictable and grows … to meet the established needs of people experiencing homelessness in California.” She urged the Legislature, which must enact a final budget before the beginning of the next fiscal year in July, to craft a spending plan that “asserts the state’s leadership in ending a crisis rooted in our failure to build enough housing in California for decades.”
A recent analysis by the group concluded that California could house its more than 170,000 homeless residents by spending about $8 billion annually for the next 12 years, less than 3% of the state budget. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has found that enough emergency shelter could be provided for significantly less.
As an array of experts and advocates have noted, the consistency of the funding is as important as the commitment. As a businessman, Newsom must know that capital projects such as shelters and housing tend to rely on ongoing funding. And housing and shelter — not mere “cleaning up” of people who have none — is the solution.
“One-time investments will not solve this crisis,” said Carolyn Coleman, executive director of the League of California Cities. “We need ongoing state funding and a coordinated approach with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all levels of government.”
California is an increasingly stark outlier in its failure even to alleviate this crisis, let alone solve it, with nearly a third of the nation’s homeless people and half the unsheltered — those sleeping in tents, vehicles, doorways and other outdoor locations. The latest census coordinated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that despite its shrinking overall population and world-class economy, California has risen from third to first among the states in homelessness per capita. The county from which Newsom ostensibly governs, Sacramento, is home to thousands more unsheltered people than the entire state of New York.
The HUD census also showed the extent to which homelessness is a statewide catastrophe. California is home to the nation’s most homelessness in a major urban area, the most in a midsize metropolitan area, the most in a largely suburban area and three of the five major metropolitan areas with the least sheltered homeless populations, including Sacramento County.
With a record like that, it’s no wonder the governor is so eager to pin it on someone else. Nor was last week the first time he tried.
In November, just days before he stood for reelection, Newsom performatively withheld $1 billion in homelessness spending from local governments only to release it after his reelection and what he called “robust convos” with local officials. In October, he told McClatchy’s California editorial boards that his next term would be “about accountability” — again, someone else’s.
“I’m not the mayor of California,” Newsom said. “I can’t go into these cities and do that work for them. The accountability needs to be met at the local level.”
It was a long way from his answer two years ago to repeated questions about his campaign vow to appoint a cabinet-level homelessness “czar,” a promise that went the way of the Romanovs. “You want to know who’s the homeless czar?” Newsom said. “I’m the homeless czar.”
Like his inexplicably abdicated czar appointment, his budget proposal and broader approach to homelessness funding reveal an unseriousness about the issue that helps explain California’s extraordinary failure to deal with it. Newsom isn’t a mayor or a czar, but he can’t dodge his responsibility as governor.
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