In summary

California may be on the verge of adopting a tougher attitude about dealing with its ever-increasing crisis of homelessness.

Gov. Gavin Newsom devoted most of his State of the State address this month to California’s ever-growing crisis of homelessness, outlining a broad new approach and pledging that he will make it work.

“I don’t think homelessness can be solved,” he concluded, “I know homelessness can be solved. This is our cause. This is our calling.”

Buried in the speech was a hint as to why he’s taking ownership of what many would consider to be an intractable problem.

“The public has lost patience,” he told legislators. “You have lost patience and I’ve lost patience.”

A week before Newsom spoke, a new statewide poll revealed that loss of patience — what appears to be a declining level of compassion for those living in squalor on the streets and a rising demand for action, even compulsion.

The poll by the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy found that “likely California voters appear conflicted about their compassion to help those experiencing homelessness and their desire to keep homeless encampments out of public areas.”

While Californians still want the homeless to be helped, two-thirds of poll respondents also want their encampments removed from public areas and high-risk fire zones.

Newsom and other politicians survive by sensing what voters want and what they will not tolerate and acting accordingly. We may be, therefore, seeing the beginnings of a tougher approach — not only clearing encampments from public sidewalks and other high-visibility sites, but perhaps compelling the homeless with mental ailments to undergo therapy.

Newsom talked of modifying state and federal policies that essentially did away with compulsory treatment of the mentally ill, calling not only for more comprehensive care but, if necessary, requiring it via “conservatorships” for those unable to care for themselves.

Clearing homeless encampments from public places has been virtually impossible, at least in Western states, because of a 2019 federal appellate court ruling — which the Supreme Court refused to review — that says local governments cannot prohibit the homeless from camping unless they provide alternative locations.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling cites the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment” and declares that anti-camping laws “punish a person for lacking the means to live out the universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.”

However, in a little-noticed footnote, the court declared, “Even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible. So, too, might an ordinance barring the obstruction of public rights of way or the erection of certain structures,” if such a law is needed to “protect the public health, safety and welfare.”

Relying on that footnote, the city of Sacramento’s staff has proposed an ordinance to prohibit the homeless from camping within 25 feet of river levees, hospitals, bridges, fire and police stations, pump stations and other public facilities and it was scheduled for approval at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

A staff report cites numerous fires and other hazards associated with homeless camps and declares, “The proposed ordinance is an exercise of the city’s authority to protect the public health, safety, and welfare as recognized by the 9th Circuit …”

Were it to survive the inevitable legal challenge, Sacramento’s ordinance would, in effect, respond to the findings of the USC poll about the public’s loss of patience that Newsom also underscored in his address.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...