An advisory council appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom called Monday for California voters to consider a legally enforceable mandate to end homelessness, as the most populous state grapples with one of its most pressing and politically fraught problems.
Newsom notably did not adopt the council’s recommendation when he outlined his own $1 billion homelessness plan to lawmakers last week, and said the proposal leaves many questions including its cost.
The group wants state lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot giving state and local governments one year to find solutions.
After that, an as yet unnamed public prosecutor could ask a judge to require any lagging jurisdiction, from state government on down, “to do whatever it takes to meet the aggressive but reasonable timelines” required to end homelessness, said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the advisory council’s co-chairman.
“We can no longer make homelessness or alleviating homelessness an option,” Steinberg said. “People are angry, and understandably so. People are suffering. This can no longer be optional.”
Newsom said he had broadly encouraged the debate, which he expects to continue in the Legislature controlled by his fellow Democrats in coming months. He also endorsed putting more expectations and obligations on cities and counties to find housing and services for the state’s estimated 151,000 homeless, who together account for more than a quarter of the nation’s total.
“The question is, how do you do it?” Newsom said after visiting the Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement (HOME) project in Nevada County to kick off a week-long, statewide tour promoting his homelessness plan.
“I am not naive,” the governor added. “This is not black and white, this is tough stuff, this is complicated.”
Newsom said he wants to test whether and how a smaller number of cities and counties can alleviate homelessness in coming months “to prove we can do this in the appropriate and right way.” The issue of cost and who would pay for such a mandate “also has to be addressed … before we go statewide.”
It would take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature by late June to put the measure on the ballot.
Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, called homelessness “the crisis of our time” and agreed that more must be done. However, he said, “a legally enforceable mandate can only work with clarity of who’s obligated to do what and what new sustainable resources will fund it.”
The League of California Cities also emphasized its potential cost.
“Any workable solutions will require additional resources, including from the state and federal governments, and flexibility to address homelessness in a way that considers the diverse nature of all of our communities,” spokeswoman Jill Oviatt said in a statement.
Steinberg said the advisory panel did not lead with a request for more money because “we are focused on a legally enforceable imperative to bring the people home. That will make the case for more money.”
The proposal is not the “right to shelter” sought by some advocates and would not create an individual right but a government responsibility, Steinberg said.
Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco who chairs the Assembly’s housing committee, said he is “very open to that idea.”
“I think given the intensity of the homelessness crisis, we can no longer think of what we do in this area as voluntary,” Chiu said. “We have to act and we need to ensure that every county and city in the state are held accountable.”
Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who heads the Senate Housing Committee, said the state needs stronger tools to get people off the streets, but “we also need to remember that the root cause of homelessness is our severe housing shortage.”
The committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Mike Morrell, a Republican from Rancho Cucamonga, said the real issue is that “California is unaffordable.”
“Suing cities and seizing local control won’t fix that problem,” Morrell said. “The homeless issue can’t be meaningfully addressed if the state’s priorities are primed to make the situation even worse.”
The debate came as Newsom began a week-long statewide tour promoting his $1 billion effort to address the growing homeless crisis. Additional stops are to include a Southern California suburban area, Los Angeles County, the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.
His plan this year builds on $1 billion in spending he sought a year ago. Conservative critics have said the state also should streamline its strict environmental protections to speed up housing construction and address transients who may be resistant to help because of mental illness or drug addiction, perhaps by expanding involuntary treatment.
Newsom dismissed the idea that there is a widespread refusal to accept help if it is offered without barriers.
“I think that’s bunk,” he said. “The vast majority of people … will jump at the opportunity not to live out in the elements.”