A bipartisan group of California state senators on Monday offered a powerful $2 billion housing plan to combat the appalling level of homelessness, particularly among severely mentally ill people in this rich state.
By making the announcement on the first business day of 2016, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, made clear his budget priority for the new year. No issue is more worthy of the Legislature’s attention.
Twenty-five years ago, then-San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos spoke about “compassion fatigue,” the idea that residents in that liberal city had grown sick and tired of panhandlers and homeless people. The problem has only gotten worse.
Now, a fifth of the nation’s homeless population calls California home, an estimated 114,000 people. Two weeks ago, we learned of the death of 5-month-old Sivam Lekh, the son of an often-homeless, drug-addled woman. In October, we read about 77-year-old Genevieve Lucchesi, who died in a sleeping bag in midtown. We cannot become inured to these deaths and call ourselves civilized.
Confronting the slow-motion crisis, de León, joined by several other politicians, announced the proposal on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a festering example of California’s failure to solve homelessness.
De León’s predecessor, Darrell Steinberg, was at his side, as were two Republican state senators. Steinberg, a candidate for Sacramento mayor, endorsed the plan to raise the $2 billion by leveraging the billions raised by Proposition 63, a voter-approved initiative he promoted in 2004 to help severely mentally ill people.
Proposition 63 generates $1.8 billion a year by imposing a 1 percent income tax on people earning $1 million or more annually. The Legislature would take 7 percent of the Proposition 63 money, about $130 million, to finance $2 billion in revenue bonds to build housing for severely mentally ill homeless people.
The $2 billion would provide 10,000 to 14,000 housing units, as much as $200,000 per unit. That might seem high, but taxpayers already pay dearly for homelessness in added health care and policing costs, and in lost economic development.
Counties would be expected to compete for the funds. Presumably, areas with the largest number of homeless people – Los Angeles, San Francisco and other urban areas including Sacramento – would receive much of the money.
Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and Sen. John Moorlach, an Orange County Republican, attended the news conference. As an Orange County supervisor, Moorlach used Proposition 63 money to implement that county’s version of Laura’s Law, a statute that allows judges to order treatment for mentally ill people who have a history of incarceration and hospitalization.
De León’s proposal is aimed at providing housing first. Once people have roofs over their heads, de León said, social workers would offer services including mental health care and drug treatment.
Democrats would do well to listen to Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel. Bates sees a need – as does The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board – to spend some money on housing that caters to formerly homeless people who seek drug- and alcohol-free housing.
Getting chronically homeless people off the street ought to be the priority. But California should not reject funding for programs simply because they require that residents be drug- and alcohol-free. Keeping drugs and alcohol away from severely mentally ill people is especially important.
De León’s proposal comes amid protests by so-called homeless advocates at Sacramento City Hall and arrests over the weekend. Pointless protests do nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. Spending $2 billion to provide housing would. It’d also provide a powerful statement that the people of this state care about the least fortunate among us.