My turn: Voters showed heart by supporting housing for people with mental illness

By Darrell Steinberg, Special to CALmatters

It’s an amazing story, really. A testament to the priorities – and the hearts — of California voters.

Earlier this month, more than 6.5 million people voted in favor of Proposition 2, the initiative that will generate billions of dollars to build supportive housing, linked to services and treatment, for people living with a serious mental illness who are homeless or at risk of chronic homelessness.

Proposition 2 not only passed. It drew more votes than any proposition on the statewide ballot.

The outcome underscores the extent to which people across this state recognize homelessness as a crisis that is tearing at the fabric of our communities. How many times have you walked by someone huddled in a doorway, disheveled and disoriented, and wondered, “What can one person do?”

About a third of the people subsisting on our streets and alleys live with untreated mental illness. Without stable housing, the challenges of getting them into effective treatment and recovery are monumental and sometimes impossible. Instead, our police and firefighters have become the first and last resort for responding to people in psychiatric crisis.

Proposition 2 offers a real, evidence-based solution: stable housing partnered with wraparound services.

And voters’ overwhelming support for its passage marks a call to arms: We need to attack homelessness–and the untreated mental illness that so often lands people on the streets—as the public health crisis that it is.

We need to move fast, as we do when responding to other disasters of monstrous proportion. We need to get this money out and ensure our cities and counties work collaboratively to get the housing built, and to pair those homes with the services that make this treatment model successful.

So what happens now? Proposition 2’s passage sets in motion the “No Place Like Home” program championed in 2016 by advocates including the Steinberg Institute I founded.

That legislation passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Brown, but got bogged down in court action. Proposition 2 will cut through the legal tangle.

In the months and years ahead, California will draw on a small percentage of existing state mental health funds to leverage $2 billion in bonds to be invested in a model of care known as permanent supportive housing.

It’s an approach that has proven successful in breaking the cycle of homelessness, hospitalization and incarceration that too often ensnares people living with untreated mental illness. Counties must commit to making services available to people living in No Place Like Home-funded units for at least 20 years. They’ll have access to mental health and addiction treatment, medical care, peer support, education and case management.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development is charged with overseeing No Place Like Home, and already has done significant outreach so counties can move fast. At this point, every county has been awarded grants to help them navigate the planning process. The deadline for the first round of project applications is due to the state Jan. 31.

In the months to come, I will work with state leaders to streamline siting requirements so construction of this housing is expedited and not hijacked by NIMBYism.

Counties will be held accountable: The funding process has built-in oversight, with the state required to monitor for program compliance and client outcomes.

The voters have spoken. They see people languishing in despair and isolation on our streets and have said it’s wrong.

Mental illness does not need to be a life sentence of dysfunction. We have answers. And now, we have resources.

Proposition 2 will fund the housing that has been a critical missing piece in our treatment protocols. It provides a financial incentive for every county in California to invest in scaling up a proven model of care. The $2 billion in bonds can be used to leverage other federal, state and local funding, enough to multiply our investment tenfold.

We have the potential to move tens of thousands of people off the streets and into recovery. So let’s commit. Let’s move, and move now.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg is former Senate President Pro Tem, author of California’s 2004 Mental Health Services Act, and founder of the Steinberg Institute, which seeks to advance sound public policy on issues of mental health, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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