May 21, 2019
By John Wildermuth and Kevin Fagan
Gov. Gavin Newsom says his new task force on homelessness won’t be just another advisory committee wringing their collective hands and talking about how it’s a tragedy that a growing number of people are living on the street.
“We know what the problem is,” the governor said Tuesday at a news conference in Oakland. “We’re working on solutions.”
Newsom fleshed out details of a homelessness panel he announced in his State of the State address in February, when he named Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to lead an effort to “work together as a state to focus on prevention, rapid rehousing, mental health and more permanent supportive housing.”
Steinberg will be joined on the new Homeless and Supportive Housing Advisory Task Force by a co-chair, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Newsom also said Dr. Tom Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, will come on board as the state’s “mental health czar.”
It’s impossible to address homelessness without focusing on mental health, Newsom said, since many people end up on the street because of psychiatric issues.
Insel’s job will be to reorganize the state’s mental health delivery system, the governor added.
The news conference was held at the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, an Oakland version of San Francisco’s Navigation Center super-shelter. Created in the 1990s and named after a homeless man who died of AIDS, it houses 160 homeless people for up to six months and offers on-site counseling. Of those who move in, 88% go on to permanent housing, the center’s leaders said.
“This is what we need more of,” Steinberg said. “We need good shelters like this, and we need the housing. We need it all. And this panel is going to determine how to do that.”
Newsom stressed that the panel wouldn’t be reinventing ways to deal with homeless people. Instead, it will look for successful local efforts that can be replicated statewide.
Newsom plans to put plenty of state money into those efforts. His May revised budget sets aside $1 billion for homelessness programs.
“We’re not going to wait for plans to develop before we make investments” to ease the problems, the governor said.
There’s a growing recognition that homelessness “is no longer a coastal issue,” limited to the state’s largest urban areas, Newsom said. In inland areas like Grass Valley (Nevada County), Fresno and Riverside, mayors are telling him that the growing number of people on the street is a problem they can’t solve on their own.
Newsom has experience working on homelessness issues as San Francisco mayor, with mixed results.
The governor said he was optimistic about the new statewide effort, although the 10-year plan he created as mayor in 2004 didn’t come close to clearing the streets of chronically homeless people.
“Success is not a place, it’s a direction,” Newsom said, noting that “as soon as you get 1,000 people off the street,” there are more moving in. But that’s no excuse for doing nothing, he added.
Newsom pointed out that his San Francisco plan lifted 19,500 people out of homelessness, although a seemingly endless supply of people who hit the streets without shelter has kept it the city’s No. 1 problem.
Getting so many people off the street “would have never happened if we hadn’t been audacious,” the governor said.
That was the main comparison he drew to his hope for a statewide plan. Going out in front on such a volatile issue, he said, will make him a target if there aren’t immediate results.
“I only know one way to go, and that’s to be bold,” Newsom said. “The good news is I didn’t need to motivate local leaders on this. They’re all outraged at the problem.”
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