USA Today, Mar. 6, 2020
By Gabrielle Canon
California lawmakers want to add $2 billion each year to the state’s ongoing efforts to battle the homelessness crisis, the biggest financial ask ever made to address the issue.
“Frankly, right now we are failing — we are failing as a state,” said Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland. "We need to make sure the cities and the counties are equipped to do the work we know they can and want to do.”
AB 3300 would add $2 billion annually, starting in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The funds would be used for housing and rental assistance and wraparound services, as well as affordable housing development. Funds would be distributed to communities to address problems at the local level.
If passed, officials say it would provide a vital safety net for the local programs that have already demonstrated success, but that rely on state funding to survive.
“We will fall off the cliff if the funding does not become ongoing,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
Oakland, which saw a 47% increase in homelessness since 2017, has been able to increase its shelter beds and other programs with help from the state — but the one-time funds already made available could dry up quickly.
“What we are doing now will have to be shut down unless ongoing resources are established,” Schaaf said during a press conference at the Dorothy Day House, a community resource center in Berkeley, Calif., with other prominent state Democrats.
The source of funding is still to be determined
The bill calls for $1.1 billion to be distributed to counties and continuums of care, $8 million would go to cities with more than 300,000 residents, and $1 million would fund nonprofit housing developers. Accountability measures, currently not specified, would be set by the state and distribution of the funds would be based on the results of point-in-time counts that show which jurisdictions need the grants most.
The money would come from the state’s general fund, but Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, said discussions are still ongoing about where exactly the money will come from.
“Two billion certainly sounds like a lot — and it is,” he said, adding that the large sum measures up with the enormity of the issue.
By the last official count, about 151,200 people were homeless in California, the highest number in more than 10 years. The number is considered a conservative estimate. In the last two years, the number of people living on the streets or in cars rose by nearly 17%, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Officials expect it to creep even higher this year when the results from January’s count are released.
Gov. Gavin Newsomsaid homelessness is his top priority.
“Let’s call it what it is — a disgrace,” he said during his February State of the State speech. “The richest state in the richest nation, succeeding across so many sectors, is failing to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people.”
He’s also thrown a lot of money at the problem.
Building on former Gov. Jerry Brown’s $500 million emergency funding in 2018 — the same year voters passed Prop. 1 and Prop 2, measures that collectively added $6 billion to the coffers for affordable housing and supportive housing for people with mental illnesses — Newsom added a record $1 billion in one-time investments to fight homelessness in his first year.
The latest budget proposes even more.
The governor outlined an additional $1.4 billion in one-time funding, and issued new directives to open public land for emergency housing, reallocated 100 trailers from emergency services to be used as shelter, and softened regulations, which slow down building development.
Newsom also assembled a task force to come up with out-of-the-box ideas and concrete strategies to combat homelessness. The task force is co-chaired by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and also includes Schaaf. So far, the recommendations they have floated have fallen flat.
The first, proposed by Steinberg, put the burden on homeless people to accept shelter if it was available. The second called on the legislature to pass a constitutional amendment creating a mandate that would add steep penalties for localities that failed to reach ambitious benchmarks in reducing the numbers of residents living on the streets.
Newsom dismissed that proposal in his State of the State speech, but doubled down on calls for accountability.
“One thing I can’t support is continuing to send out money with no accountability attached. No expectations, no metrics, no transparency,” he said. “I will not support any additional appropriations — not one dollar — unless it’s attached to real accountability and results.”
But the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office found Newsom's plans are likely not enough to have a meaningful impact on the issue. Writing that his budget proposal "falls short of articulating a clear strategy for curbing homelessness in California," analysts took issue with the governor's decision to shift authority away from local governments.
Schaaf said this new bill would help solve some of the problems with one-time funding from the state, empowering local leaders and programs that have proven success.
“Californians need accountability,” Schaaf said, calling the current system a failure. “They need to see that we in government are consistently analyzing what’s producing the most results.”
Coronavirus could cause a funding-crunch
The bill was announced just days after the governor declared a state of emergency over a very different concern — the spread of COVID-19. Following the state's first fatality, an elderly man who contracted the virus while on a cruise, efforts to contain the virus have increased and the governor made emergency funds available to help local public officials prepare.
As of Friday afternoon, in addition to the one person who died, there are 60 confirmed cases and 9,400 people are being monitored across 49 California counties. A cruise ship, which was carrying the victim who died, returned to San Francisco this week and is docked offshore while its current passengers are being tested. There are more than a thousand people on board, some already showing flu-like symptoms.
Along with the funding that will need to be diverted to stop the outbreak, the virus is expected to take a big economic toll. California was already preparing for the possibility of a recession, with economists projecting slowed growth in the coming years and the virus has added a new dimension to those financial concerns.
Bonta acknowledged that the virus could impact the state's financial planning.
"Yes, there is economic impact now," he said, adding that there is a lot of uncertainty. "It could hurt our ability to spend money on the priorities that we have, being chief among them, addressing our homeless crisis. That is a possibility."
But he dismissed the idea that the uncertain future should give them a reason to pause their plans. "We need to do this — period. Maybe it changes how we do it, and what sort of ongoing source we connect the $2 billion to, but it doesn’t change whether we do it."
Schaaf agreed, emphasizing that both a recession and the threat of an outbreak would make it even more difficult to help those in need.
"Recessions affect our most vulnerable populations first, and worst," she said. "Both the threat of an impending recession and the virus makes the need for this legislation even more urgent."
Public health officials are calling on communities to prioritize hand washing, good hygiene, and social distancing to combat the virus, strategies that unhoused residents might find hard to employ.
In Berkeley, where there's one case confirmed, Arreguin said they are trying to urgently address those issues — and this funding would be a game-changer in helping those efforts into the future.
"The people who would be most affected by the coronavirus are people who don’t have access to shelter, who don’t have access to running water, don’t have access to hand-washing stations or restrooms," he said. "That’s why having funding to get people off the streets and buy basic sanitation services is so essential to help mitigate and contain the virus to the extent we can."