A legal mandate to house the homeless?

Numerically, 151,000 people in a state of 40 million are scarcely one-third of 1%.

However, 151,000 is the latest official estimate of California’s homeless population, not only the most of any state but a quarter of the nation’s homeless. And their makeshift camps on sidewalks and in parks and other public places throughout the state spark both compassion and revulsion in the larger population.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that homelessness is one of Californians’ most vexing concerns, with more than 80 percent seeing it as a problem, and little variation of concern either geographically or ideologically.

As mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom tried, but failed, to stem the explosive growth of the city’s homeless street dwellers and while running for governor, he promised to appoint a “czar” to fix it.

Last week, while introducing his new state budget and boasting about its $1 billion commitment to homelessness, the governor was peppered with questions about his czar promise and he replied testily, “You want to know who’s the homeless czar? I’m the homeless czar in the state of California.”

Thereupon, he embarked on a week-long tour to highlight homelessness efforts in local communities. And as he was doing his thing in Nevada County, a commission he appointed to study homelessness delivered its preliminary report, recommending that local governments be required by a new provision in the state constitution to provide enough shelters to house everyone.

“The state must establish in law that it is not morally or legally acceptable to deny housing for people on the streets and create the legal mandates and funding mechanisms necessary to dramatically improve this unacceptable condition,” the commission said in a letter to Newsom.

“We propose that both state and local governments be held legally accountable to achieve the aims of dramatically reducing homelessness and creating avenues to rapid resolution,” it continued. “A legally enforceable, results-based, accountability mandate will require state and local governments to provide resources for, and reduce barriers to, the creation of both interim and permanent housing that is high quality, low barrier and complies with fair housing rules.”

The housing mandate would, the commission said, be analogous to those for free public education and other public services.  And to enforce it, the report proposed, it should have “a public right of action that requires state and local governments to create the capacity to bring unsheltered homeless people under a roof …” In other words, governments could be compelled to act by lawsuits filed on behalf of homeless people.

Newsom, asked about the mandate recommendation, seemed to endorse it, at least in principle. “We do it in almost every other respect,” Newsom said. “On this issue, we don’t and I think that’s missing. The question is how do you do it. … This is not black and white. This is tough stuff.”

Having appointed himself as homelessness czar, Newsom now owns the problem, adding another to his portfolio of unresolved issues, such as the fate of bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric.

However, a “czar” implies unfettered power that Newsom doesn’t have. If he adopts the commission’s recommendation, he would have to persuade the Legislature to also endorse it with a two-thirds vote for a constitutional amendment and then voters to ratify it.

Local governments would resist having such a mandate thrust upon them unless Newsom, et al, would also provide a lot of money to finance it. Shifting local funds from police patrols, fire protection and other popular services would be a nonstarter.

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