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California legislators propose spending $2 billion to build housing for homeless

State senators jumped into California's homelessness crisis Monday, proposing $2 billion to build or rehabilitate permanent housing for mentally ill people living in the streets.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, speaking with a bipartisan group of elected leaders, also called for $200 million over four years for temporary rent subsidies to bridge the gap until the new housing is completed. Officials estimated the construction funds, combined with federal and local money, could generate 10,000 to 14,000 units for California's 116,000 homeless people, more than 60% of whom live outdoors.

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The funding proposal is the most sweeping from the state in a generation, officials said, and reflects elected leaders’ growing frustration with local politicians, particularly in Los Angeles, who have failed to gain traction in the drive to help the state’s most destitute residents.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who joined De León at the news conference, said he is “absolutely” frustrated with the inadequate response to homelessness by local governments, but he hopes an infusion of state funding will begin to address the problem.

“The problem is getting worse everywhere,” he said in Sacramento on Monday. “At the same time we know what works.”

Los Angeles city and county have the most chronically homeless people in the nation, and homelessness overall grew 12% from 2013 to 2015. Many advocates expect another jump in numbers this month, when homeless people again are counted, despite unprecedented spending by local and federal officials last year.

“L.A. has the unfortunate distinction of being the country’s homeless capital,” De León said at a morning news conference at a skid row homeless housing project. Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) also spoke in support of the proposal.

“Here we are in skid row Los Angeles, not up in Sacramento, doing everything to make a serious effort to help those who need it the most,” De León said.

The senators’ proposal calls for the state to issue $2 billion in bonds, which would be repaid over 20 to 30 years with money provided under Proposition 63, the “millionaires’ tax” for mental health services that voters approved in 2004. The $200 million would come from the state’s general fund.

While some Proposition 63 money has gone to mentally ill homeless people and housing, it is nothing on the scale proposed Monday, said Gary Blasi, a retired UCLA law professor and homelessness expert, now with Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law nonprofit law center.

The senators’ plan will be negotiated with the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown over the spring, toward a final budget in June, officials said.

Los Angeles County and city have pledged $100 million each to combat homelessness and plan to unveil separate strategies this week. The county has already allocated $101 million to the effort, while the city has set aside $12.4 million for emergency relief before the expected El Niño winter storms.

Downtown leaders and homeless advocates applauded the senators’ initiative.

“It’s amazing,” said Blair Besten, executive director of the downtown Historic Core Business Improvement District.

Mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed more state funding, while Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich criticized the initiative for taking funding decisions out of local leaders’ hands.

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“Solving our homelessness crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, and financial support from the state is essential to getting people off the street and into homes,” Garcetti said in a statement.

“Any directives by the state could undermine this expansion effort and delay progress being made in their own unique communities,” Antonovich said in a statement. Some of the $400 million in Proposition 63 money the county received this year goes to housing, but it also funds a range of mental health services, including crisis intervention and transition programs for people coming out of locked psychiatric facilities.

Both Brown and Assembly Democrats said they welcomed De León’s focus on homelessness but stopped short of embracing the plan.

“The administration is supportive of efforts to empower local governments to tackle homelessness, poverty, and mental health issues in our communities and we will take a close look at the proposals in this package,” Brown deputy press spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in a statement.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who has pushed for more affordable housing, said she was looking forward to seeing the details.

“The proposal advanced by the Senate helps both houses — and both parties — start the year on the same page in making homelessness a top priority,” Atkins said in a statement.

The new units would operate on a “housing first” model, taking in homeless people with mental illness and drug and alcohol problems even if they refuse psychiatric or substance abuse treatment, officials said.

The city and county of Los Angeles have been moving toward the model, which is endorsed by most experts and the federal government, but some funding still goes to housing with sobriety or treatment requirements, advocates said.

“The evidence is overwhelming that people with serious mental health problems cannot successfully deal with those problems while living on the streets,” Blasi said.

The senators also proposed additional financial support for families on welfare facing or in danger of homelessness, and an increase in the state’s supplemental security income payments to 1.3 million elderly, blind and disabled poor people who cannot work. The additional programs would cost $100 million or more, an official said.

Theresa Winkler said at the news conference that she lived on the streets most of her life, turning to prostitution and using drugs before finding sobriety and a place to live with one of skid row’s nonprofit housing providers.

“It’s not fun for people, particularly women, to lie in the dirt,” she said. “By having housing, my life has been given a purpose.”

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

7:44 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

This article was first published at 2:08 p.m.

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