California’s governor is poised to release $1 billion for homelessness

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – California Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed to release $1 billion in state homeless funding that he testified to have put on hold earlier this month, but only if local governments agree to increase the aggressiveness of their plans going forward for to reduce the number of homeless people in the state.

The Democratic governor said his Friday afternoon meeting with about 100 mayors and local officials was productive in person and practically, with leaders on the same page about what needs to be done and willing to step up to their goals.

“It was great to hear their progress. And it was nice to hear their recognition that we have to go to another level,” he told reporters after the two-hour plus meeting. “What I want to see is what everyone wants to see: California’s streets are cleaned up. We want to see camps cleaned up, we want to see people accommodated.”

Newsom, who kissed for re-election this month, is on the hook in his second term to show reductions in the growing number of homeless individuals, some of whom camp along city sidewalks and under freeway underpasses, angering even the most politically liberal voters in the nation’s most populous state.

He surprised the state when he announced two weeks ago that he would withhold $1 billion in spending until cities and counties came up with more robust plans, calling submitted plans “simply unacceptable” as they would collectively reduce the state’s homeless population by just 2% over the next four years.

Mayors and county officials — many of whom are Democrats — as well as low-income housing advocates pushed back against his efforts to withhold funding, saying it was counterproductive to keep money needed for shelter beds, outreach workers and other services for homeless people. They pleaded with the governor for more direction — as well as guaranteed, ongoing funding to build more ambitious plans.

On Friday, he reiterated the record amount his administration has spent on housing and homelessness, including a recent commitment by state lawmakers to spend $15.3 billion over the next three years. The money has kept tens of thousands of people in, he said, but acknowledged that people weren’t seeing results on the streets.

Newsom said he had no plans to turn his back on local governments, but that “finding new dedicated money as we go into what could be a recession with headwinds, you have to be sober about it — as they are sober about it with their budgets.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg defended Newsom, saying after the meeting that he understood the governor’s need to provoke local governments into action. He praised Newsom for his leadership on the issue — from converting motels to homes to new mental health courts to treating homeless people with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses.

But not everyone understood the meaning of Friday’s meeting.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who joined virtually, said there were too many people and little room for “fair, constructive dialogue.” He and other mayors were told several days ago that Newsom planned to release the money if they submitted new plans.

Overall, the governor appeared to be on a different side than the state housing department, which worked with San Jose and other cities on their original plans, said Liccardo, also a Democrat.

“There seem to be conflicting notions of what is required,” he said.

The California State Association of Counties was sharp in its criticism.

“We cannot solve an ongoing crisis with one-time commitments. Progress requires clear state, county and city roles aligned with sustainable, equitable funding. We need to get out of our own way and work together,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the association representing the state’s 58 counties.

Addressing homelessness has for decades been left up to local governments in California, but Newsom took office in 2019 promising to own an issue he said he understood intimately as a former mayor of San Francisco, where tent camps crowd sidewalks and people in clear mental health crisis is a common sight.

California had an estimated 161,000 homeless people in 2020, and the number is expected to be higher this year, the result of the state’s high housing costs and historic housing underdevelopment. Advocates for the homeless say they can’t keep up, and that even if they find housing for some, many more are losing their homes.

The prospect of a separate funding stream for homelessness dimmed this week after state officials announced Wednesday that California is likely to face a $25 billion budget shortfall. next year after a series of historic profits.

The state’s 13 largest cities, 58 counties and 44 groups of homeless service providers submitted 75 applications detailing their plans to spend $1 billion in what was the third round of payments.

Another $1 billion is on the table, but Newsom won’t release that money unless those governments pledge “to be more aggressive across the board,” said Erin Mellon, spokeswoman for the governor’s office. The plans will arrive in two weeks.

Applicants must also agree to implement as many best practices as possible, including more efficient methods of getting people into housing and streamlining the construction of more housing for poor and extremely poor households.

The Newsom administration is also cracking down on California cities and counties that are reluctant to build more housing, including affordable housing, and many say they don’t want the crowding and neighborhood changes that come with more people.

AP reporter Kathleen Ronayne contributed reporting from Sacramento, California.

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