SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Painting homelessness as the “ultimate manifestation of poverty” rooted in decades of political inaction, California Governor Gavin Newsom told lawmakers Wednesday the crisis has morphed into the most urgent – and disgraceful – issue facing the nation’s richest state.
Newsom devoted the bulk of his second State of the State address to homelessness and outlined a series of emergency actions he wants to take in order to get people off the streets, improve access to mental and behavioral health treatment and finally make a dent in a persistent housing shortage.
“The problem has persisted for decades — caused by massive failures in our mental health system and disinvestment in our social safety net — exacerbated by widening income inequality and California’s housing shortage,” Newsom said. “The hard truth is we ignored the problem.”
Newsom delivered his address knowing that Trump was simultaneously campaigning and fundraising hundreds of miles away in the southern Central Valley and Los Angeles. The executives have sparred on Twitter and through the courts during their first terms on a gamut of issues, from raking forests, auto mileage standards, homelessness and immigration.
The timing of Trump’s visit certainly wasn’t lost on Newsom, and while he refrained from mentioning his rival by name, he didn’t miss a chance to slam the president.
“California is the rocket fuel powering America’s resurgence, that – let me be clear – was put into motion by President Barack Obama,” the Democratic governor said, drawing a standing ovation from the highly partisan crowd in the Assembly chambers.
Despite the stain of owning the nation’s largest homeless and unsheltered population, Newsom told the crowd to ignore the “tweets of Washington politicians” attempting to take credit for the recent stretch of economic growth. California’s 40th governor rattled off a series of economic facts the state’s critics often neglect to mention, and reiterated it’s not all gloom in the Golden State.
“We remain the fifth-largest economy in the world — enjoying 118 consecutive months of net job growth, some 3.4 million jobs created since the Great Recession and nearly 4 million small businesses call California their home,” Newsom said.
Beginning his second year in charge, Newsom is boasting his highest approval ratings to date: According to the latest Public Policy Institute of California, Newsom has a 53% approval rate, up 9 points since January 2019.
Newsom is currently engaged in budget negotiations with lawmakers after proposing a record $222 billion spending plan last month. The plan includes major increases for wildfire prevention, homelessness, affordable housing and proposes a $4 billion climate bond for the November ballot.
During last year’s 43-minute address, Newsom cast the Trump administration’s immigration policies as “nativist and xenophobic and accused the president of fear-mongering.
Newsom knows maintaining approval numbers and bolstering his political legacy will largely depend on whether he can demonstrate progress on homelessness and housing.
The two are impossible to hide from, as any resident or visitor of California’s major cities can attest, and recent polls have found the issue is near the top of the list with voters.
Lack of funding has hardly been the issue: over the last two years the state has budgeted $1.5 billion to help local municipalities solve homelessness. But the funding hasn’t been an immediate success, and in fact California has bucked a national trend as its homelessness population has spiked to an estimated 151,000.
As he did last month in his budget proposal, Newsom on Wednesday pitched to lawmakers a $750 million plan he believes will get money into the hands of nonprofits and homelessness advocates quickly. The proposed California Access to Housing Fund would cut red tape that sometimes delays the delivery of state aid to local leaders by giving decision-making authority to a series of “regional administrators.” He says the current, locally driven method needs an upgrade and a dose of state oversight.
“The results speak for themselves. We need a new approach,” Newsom said.
Newsom says his administration is developing the regional approach with clear metrics that will measure the number of people moved off the streets and given rent subsidies and will track the number of new leases and housing units built.
But Newsom, 52, faces a challenge in selling the plan, as last week the state’s legislative analyst called his plan “unclear” and urged lawmakers to counter with a more well-rounded approach.
Nonetheless, California mayors applauded Newsom’s homelessness blueprint and his State of the State address.
“We support the governors’ call for an ongoing source of funding for solutions to street-level homelessness, and the coalition looks forward to working with the governor and his team to ensure that strong accountability measures accompany any new funding,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, chair of the California Big Cities Mayors’ Coalition.
During the speech, Newsom also thrust himself into the Legislature’s ongoing struggle to pass zoning reforms that would clear the way for high-density housing near cities and popular transit centers.
Last month lawmakers nixed a sweeping housing proposal for the third straight year, over concerns it would remove authority from local leaders.
The governor called reducing the state’s estimated 3.5 million housing unit shortage a “fundamental building block” of solving homelessness. He said local control should not come at the “cost of imperiling the California Dream” and gave lawmakers the green light to continue pursuing zoning legislation.
“This means a commitment right now, this year, to major reform that will eliminate red tape and delays for building critically needed housing like affordable, multifamily homes especially near transit and downtowns,” Newsom said.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, who carried the failed zoning bills, agreed lawmakers have an obligation to pursue housing fixes.
“California is experiencing multiple crises that are harming our residents: the obscene cost of housing, the huge spike in homelessness, and the lack of a true mental health and addiction safety net. We must do better,” said Wiener, D-San Francisco.”
Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron agreed cutting red tape could spur progress but placed the blame for the jarring issues on “Democratic policies.”
“The governor is right that building more housing is needed. Unfortunately, Democratic policies have stood in the way of housing production for years. That needs to change,” said Waldron, R-Escondido.
Along with securing more funding and housing, Newsom hopes to tackle homelessness by transforming the state’s Medi-Cal system with a $695 million infusion. He wants to leverage Medi-Cal and a voter-approved tax on millionaires to better help homeless and low-income Californians access not just mental and behavioral health services, but addiction treatment as well.
“We must also expand the kinds of services [Proposition 63] can pay for, specifically addiction treatment; we need to stop tolerating open drug use on our streets,” Newsom, former San Francisco mayor and California lieutenant governor, said.
Newsom added that while state and local governments will need to play a critical role in suppressing homelessness, so too will the Trump administration.
“Federal decision-making contributed to this moment and our federal government has an obligation to match its rhetoric with specific, constructive and deliverable results,” he said.