California Homelessness Measure Pits Newsom Against Mental-Health Advocates

As Californians grow increasingly frustrated with the mental illness, drug abuse and homelessness evident on streets from San Francisco to San Diego, Gov. Gavin Newsom is staking his political capital on a multibillion-dollar ballot measure aimed at addressing all three problems.

Some of his most likely supporters, including some advocates for the mentally ill, aren’t on the Democrat’s side, complicating his sales pitch to voters.

Proposition 1, which is on Tuesday’s ballot, would raise about $6.4 billion in bonds to build housing and mental-health treatment facilities. It would also take billions of dollars from a tax that voters approved in 2004 to fund mental-health services and divert it to housing for those receiving mental-health and addiction treatment.

It is the latter provision that has sparked much of the opposition. Service providers and patient advocates say that the money is still desperately needed in an overburdened mental-health system and that funds for housing should come from elsewhere.

Prop 1 supporters, meanwhile, say it has become increasingly apparent that cities need to get people off the streets to provide them with effective mental-health and addiction services. Otherwise, their only option besides the streets is often jail.

“What we see a lot are repeat offenders. Because of the untreated mental illness, they keep on encountering law enforcement and then coming back to our facilities,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna, who supports Prop 1.

The proposition is appearing on California ballots as voters in left-leaning states and cities across the West Coast are demanding new approaches to the persistent problems of people who are sick and visibly struggling on sidewalks.

The Oregon House of Representatives on Friday passed a bill reversing a 2020 measure decriminalizing hard drugs that resulted in increased public use of narcotics including fentanyl. In San Francisco, polls show voters are likely to pass a measure Tuesday mandating drug screening for recipients of county cash welfare benefits.

Voters’ “frustration is palpable,” Newsom said last year as he signed bills that put Prop 1 on the ballot. “They’re right to be frustrated because…we haven’t proven we’re capable of meeting their concerns and anxieties.”

Newsom has made Prop 1 his top political priority in recent months. The governor stars in numerous ads for the measure and has toured the state over the past few days campaigning for it.

“We’re living in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest democracy God has ever conceived, and the ultimate manifestation of our failure is seen on the streets and sidewalks each and every day,” he said at a January campaign event, standing behind a lectern emblazoned with the slogan “Treatment not Tents.”

A poll released Friday by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 50% of likely voters support Prop 1, while 34% are opposed and 16% remain undecided. The institute said historically most people undecided about bond measures close to election day end up voting no, making Prop 1’s fate uncertain.

Prop 1 opponents say mental-health problems will worsen if money from the tax approved in 2004—a 1% charge on incomes over $1 million—is diverted to other purposes.

“If the state wanted to fund expanded substance use services, they didn’t have to steal services money from the seriously mentally ill to do that,” said Clare Cortright, policy director for Cal Voices, a mental-health service provider and advocacy group.

Anthony York, a spokesman for the yes campaign, said the state’s infrastructure and funding for mental health has grown vastly in the 20 years since the original measure was passed.

The California State Association of Counties said in a memo to its board that Prop 1 could result in up to $1 billion less for core mental-health and prevention services administered by its members and could put the state at risk of losing federal matching funds for a number of Medicaid programs.

The group, however, hasn’t taken a public position on the measure.

Opponents have faced an uphill battle to get attention. They have raised just $1,000, while groups supporting Prop 1 have raised $17.1 million.

Most of that money comes from individual and corporate donors and labor unions that are longtime Newsom allies.

According to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the $2 billion in bond money earmarked for housing would produce up to 4,350 units, with about half of those reserved for homeless veterans. The rest of the bond funds would go toward building infrastructure to treat as many as 6,800 people in mental-health or drug-treatment facilities.

An estimated 181,000 people don’t have a home in California, which accounts for nearly 30% of the homeless population nationwide. The state also accounts for roughly half of the homeless without shelter in the U.S. Many homeless individuals are mentally ill or addicted to drugs—problems researchers say are often caused or exacerbated by life on the streets.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who helped write the 2004 ballot measure as a state legislator, said spending priorities for mental illness need to be refocused on the most vulnerable, many of whom are homeless.

“Anybody who’s going to argue that the status quo is OK when it comes to mental health in California, I’m sorry, they’re seeing a very different reality than most,” the Democrat said.


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