Newsom claims homelessness progress, Republicans say he’s playing ‘hot potato’

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(The Center Square) – As California governor Newsom claims to have cleaned up 5,679 homeless encampments from state property, Republicans wait for the results of a 5,000 hour audit of the state’s homelessness programs, and point to rising homelessness and their observation homeless populations are merely being shuffled as a “political hot potato” instead of getting off the streets.

“This is just basically a program to deal with what he probably views as a political hot potato,” said State Sen. Roger Niello, R–Fair Oaks, who was one of the state legislators who successfully petitioned for the ongoing audit of the state’s homelessness programs. “We have this disaster of the freeway down in Southern California he sees as a liability to his running/not running for president.”

Newsom’s announcement emphasized the counted encampments were from “state right-of-way,” and conducted by CalTrans at state highway sites. The site of the I-10 freeway fire that recently shut down one of the busiest stretches of highway in the country was near homeless encampments. In downtown Los Angeles, 80% of fires responded to by the Los Angeles Fire Department are linked to homeless individuals, a fact that has led the city’s elected officials to call for a series of measures to prevent homelessness-related fires near critical infrastructure.

While Newsom claims to have cleared up 5,679 encampments, it’s not clear whether those removed from encampments simply moved to or set up another encampment, or eventually ended up receiving housing and treatment. The state has spent nearly $20 billion on homelessness between 2018 and 2022 as the homeless population continued to grow, reaching 172,000 this year, up from 130,000 in 2018.

Through a $299 million expansion to the Encampment Resolution Fund announced with the encampment cleanup milestone, the governor aims to ensure “the wellness and safety of people experiencing homelessness in encampments by providing services and supports that address their immediate physical and mental wellness and result in meaningful paths to safe and stable housing,” but Niello remains skeptical of the program’s potential for success.

To Niello, the top-down structure of the program, along with a lack of mandated treatment for those with substance abuse or mental illness remain barriers to be overcome.

“Counties have always been the health and human services providers in California and they’ve been fairly effective at it. The governor has abandoned this approach and to exacerbate the lack of involvement by local government and adequate funding to their efforts, he refuses to commit funding to them for more than one year. You can’t have a challenge this complex and be able to only count on one year of funding,” Niello said.

Niello said that of the dozens of homelessness programs created by the governor since he entered office, only one has been for providing flexible funding for county governments, with the rest taking a top-down approach managed by state bureaucrats and officials.

“It’s all wrapped up in this policy of housing first, that is to say they’ll get folks under a roof but there will be no obligation to undergo substance abuse or mental health treatment,” continued Niello. If people wanted treatment they’d have gotten it by now. If they get under a roof and are offered it and don’t take it, what we have is a bunch of people who are abusing drugs and continuing to suffer under mental illness under a state provided roof.”

According to the California Policy Lab, 84% of unsheltered homeless in a 15 state survey reported having physical health conditions, 78% having mental health conditions, 75% having a substance abuse problem, and 50% reporting all three at some point in their lives.

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