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Which recall candidate has best homelessness plan?

Anthony R. Carrasco was a founding member of the City of Berkeley’s Homeless Services Panel of Experts, served as the External Affairs and Policy Manager of Compass Family Services in San Francisco, and is currently earning a doctoral degree from Berkeley Law with a focus on constitutional law.

During my tenure studying the causes and policy solutions to California’s homeless epidemic, the problem significantly spiked during the last few years. On average in 2020, more than 160,000 people slept outside in California. This was roughly 20,000 more than the year before. Plus for all of 2020, almost half a million people suffered the pains of at least a short stint of homelessness in the Golden State.

However, the post-pandemic recall election might be the turning point California needs to clarify how the state finally grapples with one of its greatest humanitarian failures. That is because Gov. Gavin Newsom and the most notable GOP candidates to replace him have all issued their own distinct proposals. Here is an overview of each and my assessment of which ones have the best chance of bringing an end to California’s homelessness crisis.

Addiction & Mental Illness

Unsheltered individuals with an underlying substance addiction or mental illness get a lot of attention. That’s because in California 41% of individuals experiencing homelessness reported a disabling condition related to physical or mental health. Unfortunately, current resources and facilities do not exist to fully address these people.

Some of the problem traces back to the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, signed by Ronald Regan in 1967. This closed California’s state-operated mental health facilities which previously housed people dealing with severe mental health issues and addiction. The law limited involuntary confinement to those “deemed a danger to themselves or others, or gravely disabled people.” Ever since, some groups who believe the law abandoned those many unable to recognize their disabling conditions have quarreled with civil liberties groups over the rights of those living in crisis.

The four top candidates (including the Gov. Newsom) all support the expansion of mental health and substance abuse treatment in California. Some candidates also propose changes to the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. Businessman John Cox calls for reforming the law but hasn’t offered specifics. Newsom argues that the definition of “gravely disabled people” ought to be amended to include more people who are unhoused and diagnosed with both a substance addiction and a mental health crisis. Former Congressman Doug Ose also proposes that the law be amended to take more people who lack sufficient reasoning capacity into protective custody if established by a court.

On the budget side, California voters passed in 2004 the Mental Health Services Act (a.k.a. Prop 64), which is funded by a 1% income tax on personal income in excess of $1 million per year. This expanded and transformed California’s behavioral health system to better serve individuals with and at risk of serious mental health issues, as well as their families. However, a 2018 state audit found that counties and mental health agencies statewide had accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars of unspent Prop 64 funds, and required stronger state direction and oversight.

In response to the audit, Newsom has ordered that local governments spend funds more quickly and more efficiently to avoid a state takeover of Prop 64 funds. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has also called for an additional audit of all state funds going to mental health and substance abuse services. Both Faulconer and Newsom’s plans show that they have rolled up their sleeves in years spent working on these issues, but of the two, Newsom’s approach seems the preferable one as additional audits do little to improve conditions on the ground and have a tendency to produce additional regulatory bloat for homeless service providers.

Housing First vs. Treatment First

When it comes to substance abuse, Newsom and Faulconer stand by a “Housing First” approach. This insists the state should never deny housing aid to a person experiencing homelessness regardless of underlying factors such as an addiction. In contrast, Ose and Cox advocate for a “Treatment First” approach which refuses to place an individual in housing or shelter until they are sober or properly medicated.

Since California currently doesn’t have the resources available to provide rehabilitation services to every unhoused Californian prior to housing, Ose and Cox call for public-private partnerships to bridge the gap. This idea – which is also supported by Newsom – has merit as the few public-private partnerships that do exist in California have expanded service while cutting costs. Capacity aside, the “Treatment First” approach has another challenge: for those unwilling or unable to participate in drug or alcohol rehabilitation, street homelessness will grow and become indefinite.

Right to Shelter

It is important to clarify that “Housing First” does not mean “Housing Only.” The policies of Faulconer and Newsom link all housing resources with mental health, substance abuse, and workforce development support through what are called “wrap around” services.

But one difference between Newsom and Faulconer relates to “right to shelter” court rulings. Federal court rulings in 2006 and 2018 combined to assert no one should be kicked out of a public space if there exists nowhere else for them to go. However in cases where shelter beds exist and are available, the need for this protection fades. Faulconer believes that a “right to shelter” ought to be codified in California and should resemble the right to shelter law which exists in New York, but with intensified mandates to use shelter in order to avoid being fined.

Newsom, on the other hand, rightly finds this proposal an expensive stop-gap and instead supports providing hotel rooms to the homeless through a program called Project Homekey. The pilot of Project Homekey, Project Roomkey, is responsible for a more than 10% uptick in housing for the homeless post-Covid. This approach aligns with a state judicial precedent that found the unhoused have a right to permanent supportive housing, which deviated from the existing national standard.

It should also be noted that while the New York right-to-shelter law has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the unsheltered population, the policy has done little to increase the amount of people transitioning from shelter into housing, and this should be the aim of any sensible homelessness plan. Thus an expensive right-to-shelter law, though well intended, would financially hamstring California with little reward.

For Ose and Cox, their plans suggest the best response to California’s vast unhoused population is to beef up the criminal justice system. Ose proposes more intense policing of the streets along with expanded judicial capacities to process individuals who are unwilling or unable to enter shelter.

Cox wants to recriminalize low-level property and drug crime and dramatically increase police presence among unhoused populations. Policing with a heavier hand is believed to deter homelessness according to a “magnet” theory Cox supports. According to Cox, many homeless vagabonds hop town to town in California hunting for the next handout. However, according to the state’s newly compiled homeless services database, 96% of people who accessed services while experiencing homelessness did so in only one California jurisdiction.

Faulconer and Newsom both see a central role for police in managing California’s huge unsheltered populations but with a far more comprehensive vision for how the constitutional rights of the homeless ought to be considered. Faulconer believes in legally obligated shelter usage among the unhoused, while Newsom supports laws like conservatorship for the homeless, which is a pilot law allowing police to compel mental health or substance abuse treatment when deemed necessary.

Reviewing the Plans

In ranking the potential effectiveness of the plans, the easiest proposal to dismiss were those like by Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner’s public positions on homelessness are too vague and generic to allow for any kind of in-depth analysis.

Next are the plans of Doug Ose and John Cox. Ose’s plan is the thinnest of the four top candidates. It focuses largely only on the concept that we must compel the homeless into treatment when necessary. This is an idea supported in some fashion by every other candidate but not exclusively.

The most inaccurate and counterproductive current proposal is that of John Cox. Inaccurate assumptions in his plan include that the bulk of the homeless are roaming California in search of welfare; building more housing will automatically drive down housing costs; and that the “vast majority” of the homeless have mental health and substance abuse issues. Because of this, Cox’s policy prescriptions lack the soundness of well-supported analysis.

In my opinion, Kevin Faulconer produces the second-best proposal. Other than a codified right to shelter, Faulconer and Newsom’s positions largely resemble each other. They both want to leverage state land to expand shelter access. They both want the State of California to lead clean-up efforts in public spaces. They both want to target particular homeless subpopulations, with Newsom emphasizing homeless families and Faulconer focusing on homeless veterans.

It is perhaps Faulconer’s targeted services to homelessness veterans that is most achievable. According to the Interagency Federal Authorities, targeted efforts to end chronic homelessness among veterans have proved successful. Given Faulconer’s experience in San Diego improving homeless services for veterans, this policy comes from a genuine place of bipartisanship and humanitarianism. Given that veterans comprise only 9% of the overall homeless population in California, ending homelessness among people who have served our country isn’t a moonshot. Also to Faulconer’s credit, as Mayor of San Diego, homelessness overall there did decrease.

Of all the proposals, Newsom’s plan is without question the most promising, but not without some gaps. He has a wide range of thoughtful policy proposals backed heavily by the most up-to-date research and state-collected data, but his plan lacks coordination. According to the state’s nonpartisan auditors in the Legislative Analyst Office, the state needs a unified approach to homelessness. Though the State of California has stepped up to the plate to finance large and sweeping new homeless services, the services are conducted locally with little to no oversight and, in many cases, without alignment with the state’s priorities.

Newsom’s goals also feel more rhetorical. For example, he charges the state to end family homelessness within the next five years, but has released no tangible means by which that goal can be reasonably tracked or adequately executed by the myriad of local municipalities whose partnership will be required.

In conclusion, a significant reduction in California homelessness may be around the corner in the form of a unified and well-led gubernatorial homelessness plan. There are clear differences between the candidates. Now it is the responsibility of every Californian to cast their vote for the candidate with the best plan to transform homelessness across the state. For the many still living on the streets, waiting any longer for action isn’t an option.

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