California

More money to fight homelessness could come California’s way under this bipartisan plan

Homeless in Sacramento

Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless.
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Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless.

Congress is considering giving a $750 million bump in help to comprehensive programs to help the homeless, with agreement from both Democrats and Republicans that it’s an innovative approach to a persistent issue.

The bill, introduced last week by California Democrats Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Ted Lieu, would give the grant money to localities, such as local governments and nonprofits, who could then dole the money out to programs that provided housing, mental health services, substance abuse services, case managers and more to the homeless. Its goal: To comprehensively address the issues that contribute to chronic homelessness.

“The bill emphasizes the services as well as the housing, which makes it stand out from other bills we’ve seen,” said Robert Friant, spokesman for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a vocal supporter of the bill.

By doing that, Friant said they hope it will cut down on the amount of homeless in the long run, which in turn reduces strains on hospitals, shelters, social services and the criminal justice system.

The $750 million pot isn’t nearly enough to address the nationwide issue — in California alone, Gov. Gavin Newsom slated $500 million to addressing homelessness in his budget and mayors still told him it wasn’t enough — but advocates say it’s a good start.

“Most federal funding comes in the form of demonstration projects or small and targeted research,” said Zach Tilly, policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund, another advocate for the bill. “This is a major pot of money for supportive housing.”

Since the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping on public property if there are not enough shelter beds or other alternatives, cities in California have been looking for alternatives to house the significant homeless population.

In Sacramento, the mayor issued a public apology and city officials changed a local law after public outcry on officers telling the homeless to move from the grounds surrounding Sacramento City Hall. The homeless are now permitted to sleep there at night, but not during the day.

In Modesto, officials have turned parks and areas under bridges as secure areas for the homeless to go and live in tents. There are 1,356 homeless people in Modesto’s county, Stanislaus.

“Hundreds of our neighbors in the Central Valley spend their nights outside in homeless camps or on the street,” said Rep. Josh Harder, D-Modesto, who is co-sponsoring the House bill. “It’s just not right and we have to do something about it.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said she hasn’t yet spoken on the issue to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who chairs the Senate committee the bill was referred to last week. Alexander’s office declined to comment on the record, citing that the bill was just referred to the committee. There is no official text yet.

“The homeless issue is growing, whether you’re in cities or rural areas “ Murkowski said. “I don’t know (what the bill’s chances are), but I know it’s an issue that is in every part of the country and I think we’ll get some good feedback and support for it.”

But even a bill to try to get the homeless off the streets might get lost in the partisan climate of Washington.

There’s hope that the $750 million figure, while not enough to fully address the issue, hits the right mark on significant enough to help but not so high the bill is railroaded before it begins.

“It’s not nearly enough to fully deal with the problem, that would be in the tens of billions of dollars,” Tilly said. “In short: It’s a lot of money — it’s not enough.”

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.


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