Unwilling to take responsibility for the homelessness crisis he helped create, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom is now attempting to shift the blame to the federal government.
“We can all agree that homelessness is a national crisis,” begins the open letter that Newsom sent to President Trump late in the day on Monday, September 16.
National crisis? Really?
- California is home to 12% of the American people and half of all unsheltered homeless;
- New York shelters 95% of its homeless while California shelters just 25%;
- While 1,000 homeless will die on the streets of LA this year, fewer than 300 will die in New York City, even though it has twice as many people.
- More homeless die of hypothermia in Los Angeles than in New York City;
It gets worse.
“With 50,000 additional [federal government] housing vouchers, California could address a significant proportion of our unsheltered population, including thousands of Veterans,” Newsom writes.
That claim is totally bananas — and deeply cynical.
Newsom knows perfectly well that housing vouchers would do absolutely nothing to create more houses or apartment buildings to address California’s extreme housing shortage.
And he knows the majority of California’s landlords refuse to rent to tenants who want to pay with vouchers. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno, and Oakland, just 1% of rental postings accept vouchers. In LA county, up to 90% of people who receive vouchers fail to find housing within four months.
Newsom and his three allies betray some awareness of how outlandish their solution is when they urge Trump to “create a program based on best practices to incentivize landlords to work with voucher holders to find stable housing.”
But if such “best practices” exist, why has the Newsom administration failed to apply them?
Worse, Newsom is suggesting that the homelessness crisis is simply a problem of high rents and poverty. It’s not.
People who work with the homeless say that approximately 100% of the people who live on the streets are abusing drugs — usually hard ones — or mentally ill, and often both. A significant percentage are schizophrenic or severely bipolar. And many have been devastated by trauma including rape and assault.
It’s hard to believe that Newsom is naive. After all, he has held office in California for most of his adult life.
As lieutenant governor from 2012 to 2019, Newsom did nothing of significance to address either the homelessness crisis or the housing crisis.
But rather than take responsibility, Newsom has repeatedly sought to blame others. In June of this year, Newsom told HBO that most of the homeless people on the street when he ended his tenure as mayor of San Francisco weren’t from California.
“The vast majority (of San Francisco’s homeless people) also come in from — and we know this — from Texas. Just (an) interesting fact,” Newsom said.
“The data shows (Newsom’s statement) is completely and totally incorrect,” said Jennifer Friedenback, the executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition of Homelessness. “Newsom knows better, by the way.”
And now, in its press release attempting to blame the Trump administration for the homelessness crisis, the governor’s office claims that the letter to Trump was signed by a “bipartisan coalition.” In reality, just four people signed the letter, and all of them are Democrats.
One of them is the man who was supposed to be Newsom’s homelessness czar, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
In a column on homelessness last week, I praised Steinberg for proposing a new social contract: while the state of California must create sufficient housing, people should use it. In other words, people should not be allowed to sleep and defecate on the street.
But when we spoke by phone, I was struck by how much Steinberg blamed others for the crisis. “I agree with 90% of what you wrote,” he said at the beginning of our interview last week, “but the problem is not Gavin.”
Who then is to blame for the inaction? Steinberg: “There is fighting between the stakeholders. There is a fight between housing advocates and those advocating for bridges and those advocating for low-barrier triage shelters.”
But isn’t it the job of the governor to knock heads and bring people together?
“If we’re talking 3 years from now and there’s no change…” said Steinberg, before adding, “He’s dedicated unprecedented resources. He’s serious about real change.”
Wait, what? Three years? Do the people of California really have to wait three years before they can expect to see significant change? Was 22 years in power
Since publishing my articles, I have heard from several people who live in San Francisco that have been chased and attacked near their homes recently by mentally ill or drug-altered homeless people.
One of my employees was chased by a mentally ill man last week. Alarmed, I asked her if she carried mace. “I do,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s legal, but I carry it anyway.”
Homelessness was a problem when I first moved to San Francisco after college in 1993. People lolled off outside of 16th and Mission Bart after shooting heroin. They defecated on the streets. But it’s at a whole other level today.
The homeless man’s “burned body was found Tuesday morning smoldering in a shopping cart along the bike path at Lake Balboa Park in Van Nuys.”
My late aunt was schizophrenic and homeless at times. Like many schizophrenic people, she sometimes resisted taking her medications, which dampened her mania and insistence on putting herself in dangerous situations. She was hard for my even my father and his sisters, who are psychologists and counselors, to deal with.
Part of the problem is that California’s leaders are wedded to debunked 1960s dogma. Nobody hesitates to get Alzheimer’s sufferers off the street and yet we hesitate to do the same for people with schizophrenia and addicts, even when they are defecating on sidewalks and shooting drugs.
“There’s a provision that says Medicaid will now pay for beds in psychiatric hospitals,” said John Snook, President of the Treatment Advocacy Center and an expert on how different states address mentally ill homeless people.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Snook explained, “but California is hemming and hawing. They don’t want to involuntarily incarcerate, but it’s self-defeating because you end up with mentally ill in jail because a bed isn’t available.”
Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign slogan was “Courage for a Change.” Does anybody think he’s displaying courage in his approach to homelessness?
Consider that Newsom has spent far more time attacking President Trump on Twitter for issues that have little impact on California than he has spent rallying the state to address the housing and homelessness crisis.
Since taking office, Newsom has tweeted 85 times about immigration, 77 times about gun control, and 35 times about climate change. By contrast, he has tweeted just 16 times about housing and just five times about homelessness.
Homelessness is the biggest humanitarian, public health, and environmental crisis in the state. It is resulting in three deaths per day in LA alone. And yet Newsom is tweeting seven times more frequently about climate change.
Everybody knows that what Newsom really wants is to be president. “Three months after the gubernatorial election,” reported The San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year,” Newsom is still running Facebook ads, calling on supporters to ‘join the fight’ to save the Affordable Care Act and against President Trump’s wall — two of the hottest issues among Democrats.”
Newsom was running his post-election Facebook ads in “key swing states such as Ohio,” reported the Chronicle. “He’s not running for president,” insisted Newsom’s spokesperson, “but we’re always building the list of supporters who want to help him succeed.” A well-known political operative said Newsom “is definitely boosting his profile and his donor list so that he can run in the future.”
The homelessness crisis is more than a humanitarian, public health and environmental disaster. It is an affront to human dignity. All of us who live in California should feel ashamed of our state’s grotesque failure to serve the most vulnerable among us: not just the extremely poor but also the mentally ill and drug-addicted.
Our failure to help them is bad enough. Now we are letting them behave badly, and commit unspeakable acts of violence, against each other and against random people while using our public spaces.
A governor who cared deeply about the people of California and had the “Courage for a Change” that Newsom promised during his election campaign would act decisively. They would start by declaring a state of emergency that would allow the rapid building of temporary and permanent housing across California. They would call on the people of California to make a commitment to expanding housing, quickly, and share the burden equally and fairly.
Next, he would appoint a homelessness czar to centralize authority for treating mental illness and drug addiction. Together they would seek to restore the lost balance between carrots and sticks and get more people into treatment.
Perhaps achieving all of these reforms requires some radical measures, like creating safe places for heroin and meth addicts to shoot drugs, pass out, and use the toilet, without endangering themselves and others. Californians are not moralizers and are hungry for realistic solutions.
All of this would require vision, courage, and a relentless focus on saving California in 2019, not being elected president in 2024.
Newsom needs to find another gear. He needs to get out of his comfort zone. Most of all, he needs to stop deflecting responsibility for California’s homelessness crisis onto others, whether America, Texas, or Trump, and accept that, so long as he is governor, it belongs to him.
*Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.