Capitol Alert

Homelessness is getting worse across California. Gavin Newsom says he has a plan to turn it around.

Homeless people, many displaced by California’s housing crisis, are erecting tent encampments in cities across the state. They’re filling up shelters, sleeping on sidewalks and along river banks and living in their cars.

City and county officials are struggling to find a way to deal with the problem. It is causing public health concerns as homeless people defecate outside and discard their used needles on the street, absent public restrooms and safe injection sites.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the governor’s race, has outlined an ambitious agenda for tackling the problem, if elected. He says it’s among his top priorities.

One idea is to create a new statewide homelessness council with a cabinet-level position to lead a “regional approach” to addressing homelessness. His goal is to tie state funding to increased development at the local level of supportive housing for homeless people and to fund, with state dollars, outreach efforts to help get people enrolled in the federal disability program.

Helping homeless people sign up — a rigorous and time-consuming task — comes with a roughly $1,000 monthly check for life paid for by the federal government. Cities and counties also get reimbursed for money spent on helping people enroll and other costs like homeless people’s medical expenses.

Helping homeless people enroll in federal disability was central to Newsom’s homelessness policy agenda when he was mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010.

“We spent money and targeted money at interventions we knew worked,” said Trent Rhorer, executive director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency who served as Newsom’s point person on homelessness when he was mayor. “Even in a recession when I had to cut $30 million out of my budget, I presented this to Mayor Newsom and he said, ‘Absolutely I’m funding this.’”

It will be a core target of an ambitious strategy on homelessness Newsom plans to unveil if he is elected governor in November, he said during a walking tour of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood on a recent day.

“Right now, there is no plan in the state of California,” Newsom said. “There are no goals, there are no objectives, there are no timelines. There is no intentionality emanating from Sacramento.”

At the local level, he said, “There’s no incentive for good behavior. Frankly, it’s an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ issue, and that’s the way a lot of mayors look at it — sort of sweeping it under the rug.”

Newsom backs the controversial approach of clearing tent encampments from freeway underpasses and sidewalks and has long endorsed prohibitions on aggressive panhandling and allowing homeless people to sleep in public spaces. It would remain up to cities and counties to find the best approach.

“There’s nothing compassionate about that,” he said. “You’re literally watching people erode and die.”

Supporters of Newsom say his approach is the right one.

“We do not believe that you have the right to take a bowel movement on the street and essentially spread infection, to shoot up in public and throw the needle on the ground for kids to step on,” said David E. Smith, a doctor who founded San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in the late 1960s. “Some say the facilities aren’t there. Well, let’s make the facilities available.”

Newsom plans to develop strategies to urge cities and counties across the state to take more responsibility in expanding services and developing supportive housing for homeless people. His argument is that unless they share the burden in addressing the problem, it will disproportionately impact cities like San Francisco that offer robust services.

“The more this city does, the worse it will get,” Newsom said. “There are few places on planet Earth, even socialist countries, that are more generous than a city like San Francisco, and a county like this, and the Bay Area.”

But not offering housing and social welfare services is the wrong approach, he said. He said state and local government, and private-sector businesses like technology firms, must play a role.

“We, as a community, need to solve this,” Newsom said. “It’s about amplifying local behavior, supporting existing programs, helping jump-start through grants, revolving loans ... tax money — all of the above.”

He said he’d make new investments but hasn’t spelled out where he’d get the money. Much of what the state needs to do, he said, is “redirect” existing funding.

“It’s resourcefulness, not just resources,” Newsom said. “The deeper issue is housing — that’s a money issue.”

Critics said little can be done without a massive new investment in both affordable and supportive housing for homeless people.

“There’s been a push for regional solutions to homelessness since the very beginning — I was here in ‘82 when homelessness started, and the reason it never works is very simple: Contra Costa County and Marin don’t want to provide homeless services,” said Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the largest affordable housing provider in San Francisco. “How do you mandate homeless services? Good luck.”

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