Editorial: Gavin Newsom tries to punch up California’s response to homelessness. Again

Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, along with San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, left, talk with a homeless man outside San Diego City Hall during the annual point-in-time homeless count on Jan. 23.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, along with San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, left, talk with a homeless man outside San Diego City Hall during the annual point-in-time homeless count on Jan. 23.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It was refreshing to hear the urgency in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s voice Wednesday when he talked about how homelessness has engulfed the state of California. To show how seriously he took the issue, he let it take over almost all of his State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature.

Newsom has already demonstrated that he gives homelessness high priority. He has pumped more than $1.5 billion into emergency funding for homelessness programs over the last two years, set up a high-profile task force on homelessness, and recently dispatched mobile housing trailers to Los Angeles County and Oakland. But as the governor learned in his first year, simply throwing money and other resources at the problem won’t guarantee progress.

That’s because there are larger forces that have long been at work to both increase the number of homeless Californians and crimp the state’s ability to house them. In his speech, Newsom did a good job of laying out some of those factors. But he didn’t offer ways to solve such entrenched problems as the displacement that gentrification has wrought in lower-income communities or the institutional racism that has played a part in making African Americans a whopping 42% of the homeless population in Los Angeles County.

But he did offer sensible solutions designed to speed up the process of housing and sheltering people. Local governments should welcome his offer to make 286 state properties available for that purpose, given that some of the biggest impediments to setting up housing for homeless people involve finding available government-owned property and then going through the red tape of actually obtaining that property. And he rightly wants to exempt shelters and permanent supportive housing across California from time-consuming and unnecessary environmental reviews, as the Legislature has done for the city of Los Angeles.

He also wants to compel local jurisdictions to be more accountable for their spending on homelessness. The best idea he offered is to curb the frustrating practice that counties have of sitting on tens of millions of dollars that they’ve been allocated for treatment and housing for mentally ill homeless people. We have urged that more of these funds be spent. Newsom warned counties, “Spend your mental health dollars by June 30, or we’ll make sure they get spent for you.” Bravo.


The governor understandably wants to set up metrics to judge what counties are accomplishing with all the state money they get. But his proposal to create a unified homelessness data system for the whole state seems like pie in the sky — the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is finding it daunting to set up a database just of available housing units for homeless people in L.A. County.

Newsom rightly acknowledged that the root cause of the state’s homelessness crisis is its failure to build enough housing, and that the only fix in the long run is to “massively” increase home construction. But while he vowed to work with lawmakers to pass reforms that will make it easier to build multifamily housing near transit and city centers, his speech was woefully vague on what those reforms might look like.

Newsom has been calling for a huge increase in housing construction for years now, since well before he became governor. Yet to date, he’s had no success persuading lawmakers to agree on any meaningful legislation to overcome local governments’ resistance to building homes more densely and closer to workplaces and transit hubs. So while we welcome the governor’s efforts, he’ll need to either intensify his arm-twisting or offer a way to vastly increase housing supplies that’s more appealing to local officials.

And one of Newsom’s ideas for how to help severely mentally ill homeless people — changing conservatorship laws to make it easier to get them off the streets — just seems unwise. Although we have supported one law he mentioned — Laura’s Law, which allows courts to order severely mentally ill people into assisted outpatient treatment under certain circumstances — we have misgivings about forced care. And as Newsom noted, making housing and treatment available is a bigger issue than any problems with conservatorship law.

Still, the governor’s determination and focus on the homelessness problem is key. The state needs to follow Newsom’s lead and marshal its resources toward getting people housed faster and spending funds more efficiently while it wrestles with the bigger issues that are making this problem so hard to solve.