California Could Sue Cities Plagued By Homelessness in New Proposal

Cities unable to make progress on the homelessness front by the end of the decade could wind up being fined and taken to court by the state in a new bill proposed by California Democrats.

A homeless encampment stretches along Third Avenue and Sunset in Venice, a Los Angeles neighborhood that is home to the largest concentration of homeless people on the Westside. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Upset with the slow pace of progress being made in California cities, lawmakers are proposing a new tactic in the state’s endless fight to reduce homelessness: litigation.

Under a bill introduced Wednesday, a “homeless inspector general” would have the authority to sue cities unable or unwilling to get people off the street. Appointed by the governor, the inspector general would be tasked with auditing the homelessness plans of local governments and deciding whether to take them to court for noncompliance.

Backed by a group of Assembly members from the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles — two regions at the forefront of the crisis — the proposal is the state’s latest attempt to find solutions for an estimated 150,000 homeless residents.

San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu says Assembly Bill 816 is intended to force local governments to not just come up with adequate homelessness strategies, but make them follow through.

“Many governments are working hard to reduce homelessness, but others are not. This ensures we are moving in the same direction toward the same goal,” said the Democratic lawmaker on Twitter.

The threat of litigation comes as California continues to spin its wheels despite bold promises from politicians and a relative blank check from taxpayers. 

Not only does the state have more unhoused residents than any other state, an estimated 71% are living on city streets, parks or riverbanks due to a lack of space at homeless shelters. The jarring number figures to grow as at least 1.3 million California renters currently make under $25,000 per year and are considered at high risk of eviction.

Cities can’t keep up with the hastened eviction waves: For every one person able to find housing in San Francisco, three more lose their homes. In Los Angeles County, an estimated 150 people fall into homelessness each day.  

While voters approved $3 billion to fight homelessness in 2018 and Governor Gavin Newsom has pledged throughout his first term to end the “ultimate manifestation of poverty”, the state continues to fall short.

Just last week, State Auditor Elaine Howle cast the state’s approach as disjointed and wasteful.

In the damning report that received bipartisan condemnation within the Legislature, Howle pounced on the fact the state has no single entity responsible for monitoring how local governments and organizations are spending funds on anti-homelessness plans.

“The state continues to lack a comprehensive understanding of its spending to address homelessness, the specific services the programs provide, or the individuals who receive those services,” Howle wrote.

Reacting to Howle’s audit, Republican state Senator Jim Nielsen said, “This is so critically important, and we’ve been wasting billions of dollars and not helping the poor folks who are suffering.”

Howle’s concerns are echoed by the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst, who has warned Newsom’s proposed 2021-22 budget is filled with familiar and likely ineffective homelessness strategies.

The Democratic governor’s latest $1.75 billion homelessness approach centers around placing people in state-funded hotel and motel rooms and increasing access to behavioral and mental health services.

The February report by Legislative Analyst Gabriel Petek says Newsom and lawmakers should be scheming a permanent fix instead of a plan buoyed by one-time spending.

“As we have said previously, a clear, long-term strategy would make it more likely that the state’s investments would have a meaningful, ongoing impact on its housing and homelessness challenges,” Petek said.

Under AB 816, the Department of Housing and Community Development would be required to set a statewide goal in reducing homelessness by 2029. Local governments would then have until 2023 to develop individual plans and submit progress reports to the department annually.

From there the governor’s homeless inspector general would determine whether cities are making sufficient progress in bringing people in off the streets. Additionally, the proposal would give the inspector general the power to issue fines to cities attempting to deflate their numbers if they are caught “deliberately and intentionally” transporting homeless people to another jurisdiction.  

Assembly members joining Chiu in early support of AB 816 are Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles and Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who was tapped by Newsom in 2019 to lead the new homelessness taskforce that was ripped in Howle’s audit, applauded Wednesday’s proposal.

“Thank you David Chiu for your collaboration on finding a way to hold state and local governments accountable for bringing people indoors,” Steinberg said on Twitter. “Something this important cannot remain purely voluntary.”

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