Voters Weigh In
Homeless proposal moves to ballot
By Gary Delsohn
If you’re searching for hope in California’s homeless crisis, look no farther than recent comments by Gov. Gavin Newsom about his proposal to create mental health courts in every county of the state.
“There’s no compassion stepping over people in the streets and sidewalks,” Newsom said. “We could hold hands, have a candlelight vigil, talk about the way the world should be, or we could take some damn responsibility to implement our ideas, and that’s what we’re doing differently here.”
Newsom’s plan would allow California courts to order people with debilitating psychiatric issues into treatment, whether they want it or not. Since a growing number of homeless people are chronic drug users or suffer from mental health issues, that would get a lot of people off the streets, assuming we beef up treatment programs to accommodate them.
When America’s most liberal governor adopts a harder line on the homeless crisis, it’s a big deal. It’s even more noteworthy since Newsom was mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010, where the more money the city throws at the problem, the worse it seems to get.
Despite persistent efforts of Mayor Darrell Steinberg and others, the same can be said of Sacramento, where estimates show the homeless population has doubled the past few years.
None of this dismal record has been lost on the public. Its attitude seems to have hardened, too. That helps explain why Michael Shellenberger’s strident book, “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” has found a sympathetic audience. Shellenberger has announced plans to run for governor against Newsom this year.
In Sacramento, a recent poll of likely voters found 71 percent cite homelessness as the most important issue facing the city. Not surprisingly, the same poll showed 57 percent have little or no confidence in local government’s ability to address it.
The poll by Hart Research Associates from early 2022 registered overwhelming support for a ballot measure that would compel the city to enforce its ban on outdoor encampments.
Daniel Conway, a chief of staff to former mayor Kevin Johnson, was behind the proposal. He and several supporters from the business community convinced the City Council to put a slightly watered-down version on the November ballot.
“People are frustrated, angry and totally cynical about government’s ability to effectively address this issue,” Conway tells me. He calls his proposal “a first step toward a larger solution rather than a total solution in and of itself.”
“It basically says that in Sacramento we don’t let people live and die outside while the city gets its act together,” he says. “That’s no longer acceptable. It says there are safe places to go, they just aren’t Chavez Park or the parkway.”
Under the ballot initiative, the city would have to provide shelter for 60 percent of the homeless population based on the latest federal “point-in-time” count. Any city resident could sue if the measure passes and is not enforced, as is usually the case with Sacramento’s existing ban on encampments.
There’s little doubt a new strategy is needed that combines empathy with accountability and enforcement. Homelessness should not be a crime, as Steinberg has maintained, but camping illegally, defecating wherever you choose and openly shooting up hard drugs in public can’t be accepted behavior.
I’ve talked to business leaders who believe the city’s response has been woefully ineffective and misguided. Despite all the good intentions, investment in shelters, new housing and other projects, they say serious harm is being done to the city and many neighborhoods, particularly Downtown, and not enough chronic homeless people get the help they need.
One such business leader told me Sacramento is being “destroyed” by our failure to make a visible dent in the problem.
That may seem like a harsh assessment. But if a big, messy, dangerous encampment shows up in your neighborhood, you will probably agree.
Gary Delsohn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.