By David M. Greenwald
A few weeks ago, just prior to the election, the Guardian had an article on Linkedin regarding the rise of homelessness in the Sacramento region.
“During the pandemic, the unhoused population has soared all over California, but the increase in Sacramento has been particularly stunning,” the paper reported. “The region has seen an almost 70% rise in homelessness since 2019, now counting more unhoused people than San Francisco. At least 9,278 people are estimated to be without a home, the majority of whom sleep outdoors or in vehicles. Encampments can be seen on levees, near schools and next to busy roads.”
Most experts of course place the blame on the soaring costs of housing, which have destabilized already vulnerable populations.
For example, the Guardian notes, “The primary force behind the dramatic rise, according to the 2022 point-in-time count, is the high cost of housing. The median home price in the county has surpassed $500,000 and the median monthly rent is $2,774, up more than 5% from last year.”
They cite local activist Crystal Sanchez, the president of the Sacramento Homeless Union, who notes that downtown Sacramento studios rent for as much as $2000 a month as thousands of people are forced to sleep outside.
“Sacramento, the capital of the fifth largest economy in the world, lacks over 100,000 units of affordable housing,” Sanchez said. “We can’t survive here. I’ve lived here my whole life.”
But Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig takes a different view.
Responding to the article on Linkedin, he wrote, “The numbers are staggering, but the narrative that the high cost of housing is the primary cause of the homelessness crisis in this state is simply false.”
Instead he blames the rise of homelessness on the decriminalization of drugs in 2014 when voters passed Prop. 47, changing simple possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Reisig argues, “California decriminalized hard drugs in 2014 when voters passed Prop 47. Ever since, homelessness has exploded in our state. California now leads the nation in homelessness and overdoses.”
He explained, “The solution is not government funded free housing for people who spend every moment of every day seeking drugs and their next high from meth, heroin or fentanyl. Such seriously ill people cannot hold down a job. How will they ever pay rent or a mortgage?”
Instead he argued, “The primary solution is mandated drug treatment, including secure court ordered residential treatment in appropriate cases, for anyone convicted of committing a crime motivated by drug addiction. Otherwise, jail. California cannot continue to allow lawlessness, death and despair to rule the day. Only the State Legislature and the Governor can fix it.”
But for a guy who claims to be all about the data, he didn’t cite any data in making this argument.
Reisig of course has been blaming Prop. 47 for just about everything from the crime rise, to smash and grabs and to homelessness since at least 2018.
But there is a problem—California leads the nation in homelessness per capita, but it’s also near the bottom in the nation in drug use. California has the third lowest opioid overdose death rate in the country. It’s also among the bottom in the use of opioids.
What is it at the top of? Not drug use, but home prices.
Meanwhile, groups that actually work with homeless populations put out a statement on November 3 in response to Governor Newsom’s rejection of local homeless plans.
They wrote, “We share the Governor’s goal of ensuring that local governments act ambitiously and decisively to solve this urgent human rights crisis. At the same time, we question the choice to withhold critical grant funds already approved and committed to local emergency systems, putting existing services in jeopardy.”
They note, “Recent historic investments in homelessness, affordable housing, and tenant protections are ending homelessness for tens of thousands of Californians. In fact, local homeless response systems are housing more people than ever before. Yet, given the decades of disinvestment that preceded, these recent one-time investments are only a down payment on what must be ongoing and more significant funding for the solutions we know work to end homelessness: deeply affordable housing, supportive services, and targeted homelessness prevention to curb the tide of people entering our shelters and living on our sidewalks.”
They add, “Homelessness is increasing, not because State funding isn’t working, but because it’s just not enough to meet the scale of our need, especially in the face of systemic drivers like unprecedented rent increases, housing discrimination, and chronic workforce shortages largely driven by a long legacy of inconsistent public funding.”
They view the problem more holistically than the DA.
They argue that “we cannot expect local homeless response systems to make long-term, ambitious plans with only one-time state investments, and without addressing affordable housing, healthcare, tenants’ rights, re-entry from the criminal justice and other systems, and glaring gaps in existing safety net systems.”
They add, “People experiencing homelessness have been failed by multiple systems and deserve thoughtful, strategic, and inclusive policy solutions.”
In their view, the solution is simple: “permanent housing.”
As they argue, “To achieve significant reductions in rates of homelessness across California, our leaders must make it a priority to pass legislation that focuses on permanently housing Californians, and by making an ongoing financial commitment that spans beyond just a few years and at a level commensurate with the scale of our crisis and its solutions.”
This is what every homeless advocate will say, what has been effective: permanent supportive housing.
Susan Mizner, Executive Director and Founder of the ACLU Disability Rights Program said during a discussion in June that “the money that we are spending through this incredibly unnecessary court system, and then locking people up in these institutions would be much more effectively spent by increasing the services, housing, and supports that we know have been effective.”
She added, “We know what works. We know that Housing First works. We know that patient and persistent outreach works. We know that harm reduction works and we know that we currently don’t have nearly enough money for any of those things in the system.”
At a recent forum, newly-elected Davis City Councilmember Bapu Vaitla said the same thing: “We know what works. It’s to get people into permanent supportive housing.”
The DA naturally sees the world through his work and views coercive treatment approaches as more effective. But that’s why we need to look at data—just as he advocates, and the data here is pretty clear.