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Politicians Keep Shifting Blame as California’s Homelessness Crisis Worsens
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 1 week ago on
May 9, 2024

As California’s homelessness crisis worsens, politicians have shifted from promising to solve the issue to shifting blame for their failure. (CalMatters/Julie A Hotz)

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Over the last half-decade, state government has spent about $24 billion to ameliorate California’s worst-in-the-nation homelessness crisis. Local governments and private charities have spent countless billions more.

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Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Despite those immense expenditures, the number of unhoused Californians has continued to increase to more than 181,000 in the latest federal census. It’s not only the most of any state but the highest ratio vis-a-vis population, and 28% of the national total.

The data imply that whatever officials have been doing hasn’t worked – or even more ominously that underlying factors, such as extremely high living costs, particularly for housing, and macro economic trends are so powerful that officialdom can only nibble at the margins no matter how much money they spend.

Recent political discourse on the issue indicates that Gov. Gavin Newsom, state legislators and local government officials recognize, if not publicly acknowledge, the virtual impossibility of significantly reducing homelessness, and therefore have evolved into self-protective blame-shifting.

Newsom: ‘I’m the Homeless Czar’

When Newsom was running for governor six years ago, he promised to appoint a “czar” who would wage a frontal assault on homelessness. A year into his governorship, reporters pestered him about making good on the promise. Obviously irritated, Newsom pounded the podium at a budget news conference and snapped, “You want to know who’s the homeless czar? I’m the homeless czar in the state of California.”

As the number of homeless people continued to rise, Newsom began shifting from promises of effective action to blaming others for failure – local government officials in particular. Just last month, for instance, Newsom demanded more oversight of local performance and threatened to withhold additional funds for those deemed to be ineffective, saying, “I’m not interested in funding failure any longer.”

Local officials, most of whom are Newsom’s fellow Democrats, have responded with complaints that one-year budget appropriations prevent them from establishing permanent programs to move people off the streets and into housing.

Both Newsom and local officials complain about a federal appellate court ruling that homeless encampments cannot be cleared unless their occupants have access to housing. That issue is now awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Finger-Pointing Game

Meanwhile, the state auditor’s office last month issued a highly critical report on the Newsom administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, or Cal ICH, saying it has failed to accurately report on homelessness efforts and coordinate state efforts.

“Until Cal ICH takes these critical steps, the state will lack up‑to‑date information that it can use to make data‑driven policy decisions on how to effectively reduce homelessness,” the report declared.

State legislators of both parties joined the finger-pointing game this week during an “oversight” hearing in an Assembly budget subcommittee.

They took turns roasting Meghan Marshall, the Cal ICH executive officer, for a lack of data on which programs have been effective.

“You come to a budget committee, and there’s no numbers,” Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, told Marshall. “How many people have we helped? How many people are off the street? … Because that’s what the public wants to know. What’s the money been spent on?”

She replied that “data quality issues” have delayed the collection of data Ting wanted. “That sounds like an excuse,” Ting snapped back.

“The long and short of it is we have to stop measuring success by how many dollars we’re spending,” Assembymember Josh Hoover, a Republican from Folsom, chimed in. “I am frustrated by the lack of urgency that I see today and the lack of data.”

The finger-pointing will probably become even more intense as the homelessness crisis worsens, as voters become more frustrated, and as politicians, including a governor with national ambitions, try to avoid the fallout.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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