California governor makes homelessness top issue in 2020


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Tossing aside tradition, California’s governor on Wednesday devoted his biggest platform to a single issue: solving a homelessness crisis that has overwhelmed the nation’s most populous state in an era of unprecedented prosperity.

Governorstypically use their annual “State of the State” speeches to touch on dozens of priorities because they are guaranteed an audience of lawmakers from both political parties as well as statewide media coverage. On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the state’s homeless problem “a disgrace,” saying the state can no longer treat it as “someone else’s problem, buried below other priorities which are easier to win or better suited for soundbites.”

Newsom framed the speech as a challenge to state lawmakers, urging them to make it easier for local authorities to force the mentally ill into treatment, ease the state’s famously strict environmental regulations to speed up construction of homeless shelters and come up with a new funding source for homeless services to replace the state’s habit of relying on one-time surpluses that vary from year to year.

And he made a plea for partnership with the federal government, pitching his idea to use Medicaid money to pay for housing as well as medical benefits.

“Health care and housing can nolonger be divorced,” Newsom said. “Doctors should be able to write prescriptions for housing the same way they do for insulin or antibiotics.”

Newsom’s proposed budget includes $695 million to overhaul the state’s Medicaid program, the joint federal and state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Newsom wants to use Medicaid money to pay for things such as security deposits or first and last month’s rent — expenses that can sometimes push people onto the streets and lead to more expensive medical treatment.

But it’s likely California would need permission from the federal government to implement such changes at a time when the state has a strained relationship with the Trump administration.

Newsom and Republican President Donald Trump have frequently sparred in public speeches and on social media about the causes of homelessness. Trump has frequently criticized California for its homelessness woes, saying the Democratic-led state can’t handle the crisis and blaming it for the state’s other problems, including poor water quality in the San Francisco Bay.

Newsom set a more unifying tone in his speech on Wednesday, saying it was “time to stop pointing figures and starting joining hands,” saying the state will “continue to extend its hand of partnership to Washington.”

“But empty words and symbolic gestures won’t mask a 15% across-the-board cut to HUD’s budget,” Newsom said about Trump’s latest budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “I’m old enough to remember when HUD was in the housing business. And I’m hopeful that one day they will be again.”

Hours after Newsom’s speech in the state capital of Sacramento, Trump spoke nearly 300 miles (483 kilometers) away at a rally in Bakersfield, where he said parts of San Francisco are “worse than a slum.”

“It’s something that we’re going to do something about because if they don’t fix it up, clean it up, take care of the homeless, do what they have to do to clean up their city, the federal government is going to have to step in,” Trump said. “We’re going to do it in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

Newsom’s speech was met with bipartisan praise in the state Legislature, with Republican state Sen. John Moorlach calling the speech “brave” and “courageous.”

“The governor is moving in the right direction,” he said.

Democratic legislative leaders praised the spirit of Newsom’s speech, but stopped short of endorsing the details. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins called it “one of the best speeches ever as it relates to what we need to focus on,” but said the Legislature would need to take a “cautious approach” to some proposals, including making it easier for local governments to force the mentally ill into treatment.

“There is room for movement,” she said, adding: “Tension is what causes movement. And enough tension will cause us to do the right thing.”

Tensions over housing and homelessness have been high in the state Legislature following a lengthy debate last month where the Democratic-controlled Senate killed a bill that would have let developers build small apartment buildings near public transportation and jobs in areas traditionally zoned for single-family homes.

Despite that setback, Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon both reiterated their pledge to pass a bill this year aimed at increasing housing construction.

“I saw some of my colleagues who didn’t support (that bill) who were standing up and applauding, one was even dancing,” said Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, who authored the housing bill that failed last month. “So, maybe some people are changing their minds.”

While homeless populations in most states have declined recently, California’s jumped 16% last year to about 151,000 people, a problem that the governor said disproportionately affects minorities. Meanwhile, a statewide housing shortage has compounded the issue, driving up prices and contributing to more people fleeing California than moving in, the first time in 10 years the state has had a migration loss.

Newsom announced Wednesday that more mobile housing trailers are heading to Santa Clara, Riverside, Contra Costa and Sonoma counties, as well as the city of Stockton, after the temporary shelters were previously sent to Oakland and Los Angeles County. He also ordered the state to let local governments use 286 state properties, including vacant lots, fairgrounds, armories and other buildings, to help the homeless.

He called for some changes to a tax on millionaires approved by voters in 2004 to help those with mental illness who are homeless, among other efforts, and called on counties to spend the $160 million they already have from the tax more quickly.

“Spend your mental health dollars by June 30, or we’ll make sure they get spent for you,” he warned county leaders. “It’s time to match our big-hearted empathy with tight-fisted accountability.”


Associated Press journalist Cuneyt Dil contributed to this story.