Newsom Promised To Tackle California’s Homelessness Crisis Head-On. Has He Delivered?
Until last spring, Curtis Freeman lived in a tent under the Capital City Freeway in Sacramento, often afraid for his life. The 65-year-old witnessed some hellish moments living in a crowded encampment full of some of the city’s thousands of homeless residents.
“It’s cold. It’s dangerous. I’ve seen tents on fire,” Freeman recalled. “People will just come by, and don’t even know you, and start your tent on fire — and you might be in it.”
Then in March, Freeman received a motel room through the state’s Project Roomkey, an emergency housing program which has moved more than 22,000 Californians off the streets and out of shelters and into motel rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates for people who are unhoused say the program largely succeeded.
Standing outside of his motel near Interstate 5, wearing a black and white beanie that reads “California Republic,” Freeman said he’s no longer afraid.
“Being inside, it means a lot to me. It does. I feel safe. I’m safe, I’m secure,” he said. “I can go and lock my doors behind me. I ain’t got to worry about nobody coming in. I can lay down and relax.”
Advocates cite Project Roomkey as one of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s top accomplishments halfway through his four-year term. During his campaign, Newsom promised his administration would tackle California’s homelessness crisis head-on, making it a top priority after past governors had largely left the problem to local governments to solve.
But while advocates are hopeful Newsom will build on Roomkey to address what remains a massive homelessness crisis in the state, some say the governor must act with even greater urgency, something he’s proven can be done in the past year.
“Given the nasty curveball of [COVID-19], I think he’s proven that the governor’s office along with the State of California — when properly pushed — can do a lot of things really fast as they demonstrated with Project Roomkey,” said Joe Smith, advocacy director at Loaves & Fishes, which provides services and shelter for the unhoused in Sacramento.
‘I Know Homelessness Can Be Solved’
Before the pandemic, Newsom devoted nearly all of his 2020 State of the State Address to the ongoing human emergency.
“I don’t think homelessness can be solved. I know homelessness can be solved,” Newsom said in his speech to lawmakers at the state Capitol. “This is our cause. This is our calling. Let us rise to the challenge and make California stand up as an exemplar of what true courage and compassion can achieve. Let's all get to work.”
Two years into Newsom’s term, the crisis remains stark and the notion of solving it seems far off. The most recent federal estimates from 2019 say 150,000 Californians are without a home; there’s still a shortage of affordable housing; tent encampments line sidewalks, riverbanks and freeways; and some homeless shelters have either closed or been forced to reduce capacity because of physical distancing requirements during the pandemic.
Even so, advocates for unhoused people say Newsom is starting to meet the challenge. He’s raised homelessness to the forefront through speeches and bold initiatives while working with state lawmakers to approve billions of dollars for housing, rental assistance and health services for homeless people, advocates said.
Last year, the Democratic governor ordered state agencies to find excess land and vacant hospitals to use as shelters. He even sent trailers to cities to house those who are homeless.
Building on Roomkey, Newsom introduced Project Homekey last fall. That project awarded $800 million to cities and counties to buy motels and hotels, creating approximately 6,000 units of housing for homeless individuals. Newsom has called it “the biggest, fastest expansion of housing for the homeless in California history.”
Despite the success of Roomkey, some advocates for unhoused people are skeptical that the state will be able to move thousands from one program to the next. There are early signs in Bay Area counties that only 16% of those discharged from the motels found permanent housing, according to an analysis by KQED.
The transition could be difficult in other regions, too, said Smith of Loaves & Fishes.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as huge of a carryover from one program to the other as maybe they had hoped, at least here in Sacramento County,” Smith said.
Freeman, the formerly homeless man, said he’s in line to receive a small apartment later this year through Homekey.
He said he now volunteers with the Sacramento chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, the social services group that connected him with Roomkey. Freeman said his focus is finding shelter for elderly people.
“They’re going to die out here,” he said. “If they’re not inside, they’ll die out here with this COVID-19 going on.”
A Political Liability?
Political consultants have warned that California’s very visible homelessness crisis could be a liability for Newsom, who is facing a possible recall and numerous health and economic challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early last year, Republican consultant Mike Madrid predicted Californians will judge the governor by what they see on the streets, not just his actions at the Capitol.
"There is going to have to be less tents under freeway overpasses," Madrid told CapRadio last January. "There’s going to have to be less people sleeping in sleeping bags on cardboard mattresses on the sidewalks. And if that doesn’t happen immediately, this could blossom into a full-fledged political problem for the governor."
Nearly a year into the pandemic, the homelessness crisis is even more evident in some places. In November, business groups in Sacramento complained that the growth of the homeless community in the city’s downtown threatened to discourage customers from visiting once the virus recedes.
As of 2019, Sacramento County had nearly 5,600 unhoused residents, according to the most recent count conducted that year. That total was up 19% from two years before.
But the problem is not limited to urban areas. On Main Street in Woodland, a suburb outside Sacramento, Steve Curran said he regularly finds homeless people camped at or near his steel drafting business, some of whom he said appear to need mental health treatment as much as a place to sleep.
“They’ve waved real swords in the air. They’ve flung baseball bats around,” Curran said. “They’ve come right up to our glass door, they’ve walked into our office. It’s pretty rough on certain days and, yeah, it’s kind of scary.”
Woodland is in Yolo County, which had 655 homeless individuals, according to the most recent count in 2019.
Curran and others, including former Los Angeles state Assemblymember Mike Gatto, say Newsom’s policies need to have a greater emphasis on mental health treatment so that people are more self-sufficient.
Without providing more services, homeless programs like Roomkey and Homekey just serve to score more political points, Gatto said.
“That results in leaders patting themselves on the back and checking another box,” he added. “But in reality, the people are not given the support that they need or, frankly, the tough love that they need. Then they wind up back on the street.”
Newsom said this month that mental health funding for unhoused residents is on the way as part of the nearly $2 billion he proposed spending on homelessness in his January budget.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, said Newsom deserves credit for his early actions. But he needs to sustain and build on those accomplishments by developing a permanent source of funding for homelessness, she said.
“I would give him good marks for focusing on homelessness,” Friedenbach said. “But he’s really tinkering around the edges and needs to go much farther. You know, bring in additional revenue in order to address the situation at the scale that the crisis calls for.”
Friedenbach, who has known Newsom since his time in local government in San Francisco, said he’s always had bold ideas. The question now, she added, is whether he can follow through and truly solve this emergency.