Homelessness, says Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, will be one of his top priorities should he be elected California governor this fall. He even has a plan, says the Sacramento Bee, in which he will “get deeply involved at a granular level where most governors haven’t in the past.”
Let’s hope this plan works better than the one he had when he was San Francisco mayor from 2004 to 2011.
The once-Golden State has the biggest homeless population in the country, with 135,000 wandering its dingy streets. Roughly a quarter of the nation’s entire homeless population calls California “home.” Thirty-four of every 10,000 California residents is homeless, according to PolitiFact, ranking the state third after only Hawaii (51 per 10,000) and New York (45).
San Francisco, widely thought of as the most beautiful city in the country, and for many the model for future “progressive” municipalities, is the epicenter of the crisis. Homeless camps have been growing so fast that in the last year and a half that officials acted to sweep out the 30 biggest compounds and are not allowing transients to establish new camps that have more than 10 tents.
The city’s homeless crush is not only unpleasing to the eye, it is also a health hazard. When the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit surveyed more than 150 blocks in San Francisco’s downtown earlier this year, it found piles of human feces on 96 of the blocks, and used hypodermic needles littering 41. Reports of an overwhelming smell of human urine have become rather commonplace.
Important parts of the city have become such a dump that an unnamed medical association based in Chicago won’t be holding its convention in San Francisco after 2023. It says its members no longer feel safe in the city due to its “appalling street life,” which has also grown so intolerable that it “repels” the city’s famously tolerant residents. Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of convention bureau S.F. Travel, says this is the first case in which “we have had an out-and-out cancellation over the issue.” The group, he added, “has been coming here every three or four years since the 1980s.”
D’Alessandro said the organization might replace San Francisco with Los Angeles in its rotation. If things continue as they are, though, it will eventually abandon that location, too. Los Angeles’ homeless population grew by nearly a quarter from 2016 to 2017 and is showing no signs of retreat.
While campaigning for governor, Newsom “has told voters that addressing the state’s upsurge in homelessness is his top priority,” according to the Sacramento Bee, and has “has outlined an ambitious agenda for tackling the problem.”
“One idea,” reports the Bee, “is to create a new statewide homelessness council with a cabinet-level position to lead a ‘regional approach’ to addressing homelessness.” Newsom’s “goal is to tie state funding to increased development at the local level of supportive housing for homeless people and to fund, with state dollars, outreach efforts to help get people enrolled in the federal disability program.”
More government, more bureaucracy, more programs. This has been tried over and again. Yet we still have a homelessness crisis that is growing worse.
The Bee also tells us about Newsom’s “ambitious strategy on homelessness” that he “plans to unveil if he is elected governor in November.” One can imagine that it too will be filled with solutions that will increase the size of an already-bloated state government but none that will work.
Whatever Newsom’s “secret plan” — our words — is, there should be a deep concern that it results will look much like his effort as San Francisco mayor.
At the end of June 2004, then-Mayor Newsom promised that within a decade the city’s homeless crisis would be behind it. His solution leaned heavily on opening housing units for the homeless and, naturally, public programs. Yet Newsom’s agenda cleaned up nothing. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2014 that the homeless population hadn’t “budged” since the 2004 promise and in fact “as one homeless person is helped, another takes his place.” From 2013 to 2017, the city’s homeless population grew by 17 percent, to roughly 7,500.
Rather than wrap old and failed ideas in new bows, Newsom — and the homeless — would fare better if he’d promote private-sector involvement, seek policies that increase economic development that will put more people to work, and eliminate the policy barriers that are holding back a housing construction boom.
If there is public money to be spent, it would be best directed toward services that treat and resolve the root causes of homelessness. This is always best achieved through private groups that are given the flexibility to run their programs without government interference if they’re producing positive results.
Finally, Newsom should resist the temptation to pursue a “housing first” policy. While that path can take some off the streets, it does nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness, and in too many instances further supports those causes. As Michele Steeb, CEO of St. John’s Program for Real Change, said on PRI’s podcast, government’s housing-first programs don’t allow for sobriety requirements or other forms of accountability. Instead, they essentially subsidize the behaviors that are the causes of homelessness.
And as we’ve said before, solving the homeless crisis demands creative ideas, thoughtful rather than recycled public policy, and a compassionate attitude instead of pretense. If Newsom can bring some new thinking to the issue, he can make good on his second chance.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.