Of the roughly 134,000 homeless people on the streets of California, about a third are seriously mentally ill. Their illnesses cannot be successfully treated on sidewalks. They must get housing first. That’s why the state of California wisely enacted Assembly Bill 1816 two years ago to raise $2 billion to build or preserve permanent supportive housing for homeless people suffering from mental illness.
The bonds authorized by the program would be paid off by temporarily using a small portion — just about 6% — of the revenue generated by Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, which voters approved in 2004 to provide mental health treatment programs and services in the state. The proposition imposed a 1% surcharge on incomes above $1 million, which is expected to generate more than $2 billion this year alone. But the housing program — titled No Place Like Home — has been stymied by a lawsuit that contends the Mental Health Services Act was never intended to be spent on housing.
Voters will have the chance to resolve this issue in November by passing a ballot measure, Proposition 2, that would explicitly allow Mental Health Services Act dollars to be spent on the No Place Like Home program. We strongly endorse it.
Opponents argue that housing mentally ill people does not constitute treatment, but Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg (a co-author of the Mental Health Services Act) and other supporters of Proposition 2 say that misses the point of what treating mentally ill homeless people entails. This is not “stealing” treatment money, as the lawyer who filed the lawsuit against the state argued this year. Just the opposite. This is an effective use of the funding.
Service providers have shown consistently that mentally ill homeless people are most likely to improve when housing is combined with treatment. Developers of the housing built with this money would be required to make mental health and case management services available as well.
Some opponents are understandably worried that Proposition 2 will siphon off funds from needed treatment programs. But that’s unlikely, considering that the cost is expected to be a small and diminishing percentage of Proposition 63 over time.
The funds are disbursed by county, and Los Angeles County stands to receive about $700 million for desperately needed permanent supportive housing. As with L.A. city’s homeless housing bond program, the funds provide only a portion of the financing, but they are a crucial piece of the puzzle.