“The crisis is so bad people’s minds are really opening up and the policies are shifting,” said Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco. “Legislation that would have had no chance five or 10 years ago can pass.”
President Donald Trump, not shy about bashing a state that’s challenged his administration more than any other, has assailed California Democratic politicians over the crisis, calling it “a disgrace to our country.” Trump has even threatened federal intervention — which might come sooner rather than later.
A Trump administration plan cracking down on homelessness in California could be ready for the president’s review in the coming weeks, The Washington Post reported last week. The administration has considered razing tent encampments and sheltering people on federal property, though the details of the forthcoming plan remain unclear. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said it has no advanced knowledge of Trump’s plans — and it has little expectation they will be welcomed in the state, which has instead pushed for more federal resources.
“The vast majority of Californians are skeptical of his intentions because the evidence suggests he’s not looking out for our best interests,” said Daniel Zingale, Newsom’s chief strategist.
The expanding homelessness crisis presents an early test for Newsom, a first-year governor with higher political aspirations. He has launched a statewide task force and is considering a version of “right to shelter,” the controversial mandate used to keep people off the streets in New York City.
Newsom has directed $1 billion toward housing and homelessness, approved legislation giving cities and counties more legal authority to build emergency shelters, and convened a homelessness task force set to deliver its first recommendations next month.
But the problem is only getting worse.
Homelessness has skyrocketed in the past two years — by 47 percent in Oakland, 42 percent in San Jose and 17 percent in San Francisco. State legislators, cities and counties are seeking new fixes.
That means voluntary is giving way to involuntary approaches. A new state law authored by Wiener makes it easier for three counties to “conserve” — or take guardianship over — homeless people with several mental illness or substance use disorders who bounce in and out of short-term psychiatric commitments. California voters could weigh in next year on a proposed ballot measure that would sentence homeless offenders to treatment instead of jail time.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County, Sacramento and several other California cities are asking the Supreme Court to review a 2018 federal appeals court decision barring cities from punishing people for sleeping on the streets if there’s a shortage of shelter beds. The cities say the decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case, Martin v. Boise, was sweeping and raises too many legal questions. Advocates worry that overturning the appeals court decision raises the specter of criminalizing homelessness.
“It’s simply inhumane to allow people to remain on these streets in their own vomitus, in their own feces,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-chairs the governor’s task force on homelessness. “To me, it’s not a debate about civil liberties. It’s a debate about dignity.”
Ridley-Thomas said he’s wary of the strong-arm tactics that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani used to clean up the city’s streets. Under those policies, police conducted sweeps of public places and rounded up homeless people to take them to shelters, arresting them if they refused.
“I believe we can avoid some of the undesirable aspects of the ‘right to shelter’ as it has manifested itself in New York,” Ridley-Thomas said. “But I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that less people die on the streets in New York than they do in California.”
But greater use of involuntary methods against people with mental illness raises alarms among advocates for homeless rights and civil liberties.
“If we’re talking about involuntary care, you’re basically waiting until someone is in really bad shape before they get help,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, a San Francisco advocacy organization.
Friedenbach argues just a small number of the homeless refuse shelter if offered, and that politicians should look for something “between leaving people on the streets and locking them up” — housing, health care and behavioral treatment.
“It’s called giving people the capacity to thrive,” she said.
Policymakers agree long-term housing is the goal, but they also need to find more short-term, immediate solutions.
Three-quarters of Los Angelenos surveyed in a new poll supported a right-to-shelter law, and most equated the problem to a natural disaster. Another survey of likely voters released last week found similar levels of support for a right-to-shelter approach across the entire state.
The state’s long-standing and disproportionate problem with people living on the streets — especially those with mental illnesses — dates back more than 50 years. That’s when the state started moving patients out of state-run psychiatric institutions and into nursing and board-and-care facilities.
“This is a decades-old failure of public policy,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, co-chair on the governor’s homelessness task force and founder of the Steinberg Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for policies to help people with mental illnesses.
The hospital closures dovetailed with a landmark 1967 state law that all but ended the practice of institutionalizing people against their will. It set a policy of 72-hour holds only if a person is found to be a danger to themselves or others. This sets the bar very high in California to compel people to get treatment.
A growing chorus of policymakers, family members and mental health advocates want to revamp that law to give authorities more ability to require care.
“There has to be some sort of stability,” said Jessica Cruz, executive director of the state’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If somebody is having a heart attack on the street, we run to them and provide assistance right away. If someone is having a psychiatric break, we run from them and call the police.”
But policy efforts to compel shelter or care in California have gotten pushback from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, disability rights and homeless advocacy groups.
The proposed November 2020 ballot measure allowing courts to mandate treatment for homes offenders was condemned by Disability Rights California, which said it would dump the problem on the criminal justice system and “failed models of institutionalization rather than robust community services and housing.”
Former Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who drafted the measure, said it was a sensible and compassionate approach.
“They need to be channeled into the appropriate resources, and there must a component that’s involuntary,” he said. “The calls to do things that are substantially more draconian will increase the longer government takes to solve this problem.”
Wiener, the San Francisco Democrat, has also taken flak from advocacy groups over his guardianship law, which pilots the idea in his home county, as well as Los Angeles and San Diego. Wiener rejected complaints that his measure would violate the rights of people living on the streets.
“It’s not progressive to let someone unravel and die on the street,” Wiener said.