Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom delivered his annual State of the State address at the State Capitol. And in an unusual twist, he devoted the entire address to one topic – homelessness. Typically, the State of the State outlines a governor’s policy wish list in a variety of areas.
Newsom garnered national headlines for making a rather naive statement in his address that, “doctors should be able to write prescriptions for housing the same way they do for insulin or antibiotics.”
But unless Sacramento policymakers change their thinking, the prescription would be a meaningless piece of paper. Even if doctors were able to write prescriptions for housing, that doesn’t mean patients would be able to go down to the pharmacy and collect their keys.
Thanks to a myriad of obstacles put in place by state and local policymakers and the courts, it’s incredibly difficult in California to build new housing and get homeless off the streets. And their virtually one-sided discussion of housing as the key to addressing homelessness ignores the other hard work that must be done to ease the problem.
In a bit of good timing, PRI held its second annual “California Ideas in Action” conference in Sacramento later that afternoon, discussing market-based ideas to address the state’s many challenges – including homelessness.
As PRI President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy Sally C. Pipes said of Newsom’s homelessness plans in her opening remarks, “it’s the latest example of government throwing money at something and hoping that will solve the problem.”
PRI Center for California Reform scholar Kerry Jackson moderated a panel discussion on California’s homeless crisis, which previews a major book that will be published later this year exploring how the free market, private charities, and non-profits can do a better job in addressing the homeless problem than the status quo.
Christopher Rufo, PRI adjunct fellow, has been studying the homeless crisis for a couple of years and noted that he had just spent a week on LA’s infamous Skid Row to observe the homeless crisis not from a “statistical point of view, but from a human point of view.”
Rufo separates out people who have fallen on economic hard times, who lost their housing due to rising rents, a medical emergency, or as victims of domestic violence. He argues that it is not overly difficult to get those who are otherwise-functioning adults but who need financial assistance, as he calls them, off the streets and into housing.
He focuses on the “unsheltered homeless, the group of people who are creating public disorders, that are creating city-wide problems in places” and challenges the emphasis by Sacramento politicians like Newsom on billions in new spending for housing programs.
“You can put someone who has a methamphetamine addiction, is in and out of jail, has schizophrenia, totally disconnected from family, unable to work, you can put them in a unit of subsidized housing and you can say we’ve solved the homelessness problem,” Rufo says. “But my contention is that you have to solve the human problems to solve this problem. And it’s actually negligible and cruel to just assume you can get people off the streets and into housing and say your job is done.
PRI adjunct fellow Joseph Tartakovsky, a lawyer with Gibson, Dunn, worked on the recent Martin case on homelessness that was turned down by the Supreme Court. He noted that Newsom’s remarks weren’t exactly new and actually set up an unreasonable expectation that the problem won’t be fixed.
“I think we set ourselves up for failure if we talk about ‘finding a solution’ to this problem. You can’t solve it anymore than you can solve poverty or drugs, you can manage it,” Tartakovsky said.
“It’s demoralizing when politicians talk about, ‘this is it, we’re going to solve the problem now,’ and they don’t do it. There are things in Gavin Newsom’s speech today that I have seen in speeches that he gave in 2004, 2003 when he was mayor of San Francisco,” he noted.
Concluding the panel discussion, Jackson noted that the approach of Newsom and like-minded lawmakers amounts to fueling a “homeless-industrial conference.”
Let’s hope Sacramento goes out of their comfort zone and embraces some of the attitude and policy changes Rufo and Tartakovsky discussed if we want to make real progress in cleaning up our streets.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.