There's been a lot of chatter about whether Gov. Gavin Newsom will keep his promise to appoint a state "czar" to deal with California's apocalyptic crisis of homelessness. So far, Newsom has refused – and perhaps we should all be fine with that.
Why waste taxpayer money on six-figure salaries for a new state bureaucracy tasked with helping the poorest of the poor? California already has multiple and overlapping housing agencies that have failed to address the problem. Besides, Newsom is smart enough to know that California voters will hold one person responsible if the state fails to fix this catastrophe: the governor they elected to tackle the state's problems with boldness and "courage for a change."
Newsom's term as governor will be defined by whether a state brimming with unprecedented wealth and surplus also became a state where tens of thousands of people have no choice but to live and die in the streets. It's a problem he inherited from his predecessors, but that hardly matters. The job of every governor is to fix the problems his or her predecessors failed to solve.
So, it's good to see Newsom start 2020 off with a bang by addressing the state's crisis of homelessness. This week, the governor announced plans to spend $750 million to help "pay rent for homeless people, build housing for them and improve shelters," according to a story by The Sacramento Bee's Sophia Bollag. The money will come from the state's expected one-time budget surplus of $7 billion.
The governor also issued an executive order to make state-owned lands available as sites for homeless shelters and services. This will help cities struggling to manage the impromptu tent villages springing up in parks and on streets around the state.
In addition, The Bee reported that Gov. Newsom plans to:
• Establish a homeless "strike team"
• Make 100 state-owned trailers available for emergency housing and services
• Increase Medi-Cal funding and expand the program to include housing assistance for homeless people.
• Conduct a state study of the root causes of homelessness and develop a way to measure how local governments are responding to the crisis.
• Provide more money for mental health services for homeless people. Newsom's office said he wants to change Proposition 63, a 2004 law that funds mental health services, to make sure homeless people get more help. He also wants to improve the mental health services provided by Medi-Cal.
In all, the governor's office says he will commit over $1 billion to reduce homelessness. Newsom credited Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas with helping to generate solutions. Last year, he tapped both men to advise him on the issue.
The governor has a long way to go on this issue, but these steps show that he understands the gravity of the situation and is committed to addressing it. Last year, his budget provided $650 million to help local governments address homelessness. This year, he's added another $750 million, but the dollar amounts look like a drop in the bucket when you consider the fact that the state expects its reserves to reach $19 billion by June.
But it will take more than money to solve California's multifaceted housing crisis, and the state must do more than provide safe spaces for tents. It must figure out how to increase the state's housing supply and make housing more affordable for the increasing number of Californians struggling to get by despite the vaunted "miracle" economy that's strong on paper but not in reality.
Newsom's actions make it clear that he understands that protecting people from homelessness is his moral responsibility as well as his official responsibility. In this way, he provides a refreshing contrast to President Donald Trump, who screeches about California's housing crisis on Twitter but appears impotent and disinterested when it comes to real solutions. Too bad. The nation's rising tide of homelessness reflects the failure of federal, state and local governments alike.
Thankfully, in the absence of White House leadership, Gov. Newsom is rising to the challenge.