By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – A pointed column this week by Josh Gohlke in the Sacramento Bee (warning paywall) argues, “California is ready to try almost any tactic on homelessness. Just not the one that works.”
Gohlke notes that unsheltered homelessness has exploded over the last several years, with an increase in the number of people sleeping in the streets having increased in parts of the East Bay by over 40 percent since the start of the pandemic.
The Governor’s response: a task force. We used to teach Pol 1 students that whenever a politician wants to kill something, they assign it to a task force.
Writes Gohlke, “Undeterred, Steinberg proposed a similar policy for his city two years later as homelessness surged past the Bay Area to reach new levels in the capital and beyond.”
The mayor still maintains that a right to a roof is “ultimately the only way out of this mess.”
Gohlke argues that “Californians should get used to this mess” because instead of dealing with the problem at the core, the Governor and legislature have doubled down on compelled treatment of the severely mentally ill through the CARE Act. Something that seems politically popular except that the experts don’t believe it will work and critics note there is not enough funding now to treat everyone in need – and the only funding CARE provides is for administration.
Not that Sacramento is doing the right solution either. Sacramento is pushing Measure O for the voters to sign, which would crack down on unauthorized camping.
In other words, let’s not fund housing, let’s just make homeless illegal. Seems like a magical solution to me.
As Gohlke notes, “Neither is likely to provide much more of what California’s legion unsheltered homeless people lack by definition — homes and shelter — much less require anything of the kind.”
He hammers both CARE and Measure O which he notes “are different but parallel examples of the inexorable march of California’s homelessness discourse.” He writes, “It starts with an inordinate share of the population being deprived of housing or shelter; it ends with a determination to eliminate the evidence rather than the cause of the deprivation.”
Ironically the Governor seems to recognize the problems posed by the housing crisis.
But somehow fails to see the homelessness crisis connected with it.
Gohlke writes, “Contrary to much of the public conversation about homelessness, research has repeatedly shown that homelessness rates are closely correlated with the overall availability and cost of housing.”
“We end homelessness all the time in Sacramento and up and down the state,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. The trouble is that housing scarcity and prices perpetually drive more people out of their homes than the substantial numbers local governments and nonprofits manage to rehouse.
Here’s an interesting factoid that Gohkle brings up. IN California, about 70 percent of the homeless are unsheltered. Why is that significant? Because it’s by far the largest percentage in the nation. The only state close is Oregon at 60 percent. Texas is third at 48.5 percent.
Compare that to New York, which actually has more homelessness per capita than California. However, in NY, less than five percent of homeless people sleep outside.
Writes Gohlke, “Sacramento alone has more unsheltered people than the entire Empire State.”
“In every subset of New York’s homeless population, the vast majority live in transitional housing or emergency shelter,” he continues. “In California, the opposite is true: Across almost every segment of the homeless population — the severely mentally ill, military veterans, domestic violence survivors and even unaccompanied children – a majority sleep in tents, cars and doorways.”
Why is that? That would seem to be a burning question – but for some reason it is not.
Just two lawmakers in the entire 120 member state legislature voted against the bill. One of them was Assemblymember Ash Kalra. He said he fears it would enable officials to enforce an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality” about homelessness.
Kalra a former public defender told Gohlke that he was hesitant to criticize efforts to help the homeless and mentally ill.
But he noted, he was “oncerned about granting local officials expansive authority to compel treatment without guaranteeing housing, the lack of which is a prescription for failure.”
“My worry is that this net that’s being thrown out is going to be too broad,” Kalra said.
He also does not believe in using the court system to treat the sick.
So what is the answer – housing of course.
“The way California addresses mental illness and substance abuse isn’t working,” said Newsom adviser Jason Elliott. “The question is not, ‘Is the status quo acceptable?’ We all agree that the answer is ‘no.’ The question is, ‘How do we very rapidly do better?’”
The problem of course – CARE Court isn’t going to do much to change this problem.
Gohlke writes, “Even if the change is rapid, it won’t be, by the government’s own reckoning, broad. The administration estimates that CARE Court will affect at most 12,000 people with behavioral health problems who may or may not be homeless. Even if all of them were unhoused, they would make up less than 8% of the state’s homeless population.”
Elliot admits that the solution to homelessness “is housing.”
That makes sense.
But as Gohlke concludes: “the latest uprising against homelessness isn’t likely to help a substantial share of the state’s unsheltered thousands over a threshold and out of the elements. In California and its capital, the desperation to do something about our dispossessed legions is cruelly devoid of any commitment to bring them home.”
But we don’t want to talk about that. We want to make the problem disappear – by making the homelessness less visible, not by solving the problem.