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California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposes $12 billion to house state's homeless

“As governor I actually want to get something done. I don’t want to talk about this for a decade," Newsom said.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday proposed $12 billion in new funding to get more people experiencing homelessness in the state into housing and to “functionally end family homelessness” within five years.

“As governor I actually want to get something done. I don’t want to talk about this for a decade," he said at a former San Diego hotel that's been converted into housing for the homeless.

Newsom's proposal includes $8.75 billion to expand a California program created during the pandemic that converts hotel and motel rooms and other properties into housing for people in need. Roughly half of that money would go toward creating housing where mental health and other behavioral services are provided on site to people living there.

The nation’s most populous state has an estimated 161,000 people experiencing homelessness, which is more than any other state.

Beyond the money for converting hotels, Newsom proposed spending $3.5 billion on new housing and rental support payments for families.

If Newsom's plan wins support from the state Legislature, it's implementation would depend heavily on the willingness of local governments to go along. Local leaders showed support for the plan during the pandemic by converting 94 hotels, motels and other properties across the state into housing for people experiencing homelessness, said Jason Elliott, a Newsom adviser who works on housing and homelessness.

Still, San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a fellow Democrat, acknowledged that tackling the issue is challenging and urged Californians to step up efforts to solve the politically difficult problem.

“Every community group that you go to demands that you solve the problem of homelessness, and then in the exact same meeting they’ll demand you don’t solve it anywhere near them," he said.

The new pending proposal came as part of a $100 billion pandemic recovery plan Newsom is rolling out this week. The massive amount comes from an astounding $76 billion estimated state budget surplus and $27 billion in new funding from the federal government’s latest coronavirus spending bill.

Focusing on homelessness, a vexing issue for the state, could prove politically helpful for Newsom as he faces expected recall election later this year.

A new state database shows that nearly 250,000 people sought housing services from local housing officials in 2020. Of that number, 117,000 people are still waiting for help while nearly 92,000 people found housing.

Newsom — a former mayor of San Francisco, where the homelessness is very visible — seized the twin crises of homelessness and affordable housing even before the pandemic started last year.

He launched projects “Roomkey” and “Homekey,” using federal funding to house homeless residents in hotels and motels during the pandemic and helped cities, counties and other local entities buy and convert motels and other buildings into housing.

Newsom officials said $800 million spent on the program last year created 6,000 more housing units from motels, houses, dorms and other repurposed buildings, providing shelter for 8,200 people.

The average cost to convert a unit into housing for people experiencing homelessness was nearly $150,000, Newsom administration officials said at a recent briefing. They said that is much cheaper than building housing from scratch.

Local leaders have welcomed Newsom's focus on the problem. Big city California mayors are seeking $20 billion from the state over five years to address housing and homelessness.

Advocates for the homeless say there's simply not enough affordable housing to help people who slip into homelessness, which is why tent camps and sleeping bags still clutter highway ramps and city sidewalks.

A February audit criticized the state for its fragmented approach to addressing homelessness, and urged the state to track spending and set statewide policy.

It identified at least nine state agencies that spent $13 billion on 41 programs to address homelessness without evidence to show what was effective.