In summary

The California homeless crisis is a focal point for politicians ahead of the 2022 elections. But is permanent supportive housing the answer?

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With the 2022 primary elections less than six months away, candidates are diving head-first into one of California’s most visible and persistent problems: homelessness.

The phenomenon is particularly evident in Los Angeles County, where about half of the state’s at least 49,000 chronically homeless people live. On Friday, Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, who’s running for Los Angeles mayor, pledged to house 15,000 people by the end of her first year in office and “end street encampments.” Meanwhile, tensions are escalating between Democratic City Councilman Kevin De León — who’s also running for mayor — and homeless advocates, who have accused De León’s office of “coercing people against their will into temporary shelters that are not always a good fit for them.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t mincing words, either: “We’ve gotta clean up those encampments,” he said last week while unveiling a $2 billion plan to build tiny homes and other temporary shelters, which would act as a “bridge” to permanent supportive housing with services such as medical and mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

2022 Election

Your guide to the 2022 general election in California

But, as CalMatters’ Jackie Botts found in the two years she spent following Fernando Maya, a 56-year-old chronically homeless veteran, through the state’s plan to end homelessness, even permanent supportive housing is far from a perfect solution. As Jackie details in this beautifully written, poignant piece, Maya came very close to voluntarily returning to his tent under a Los Angeles overpass.

  • Maya, in a text message to Jackie: “You know I didn’t even think that the transition would be as tough as it has been. I always just assumed that others who struggle are just weak to begin with. When in reality thinking back it’s not a weak thing to begin with. It’s a readiness I’ve never really had.”

As the state pours unprecedented amounts of money into building permanent supportive housing, Jackie takes a look at five key challenges — and their potential solutions.

Another challenge: California doesn’t know how many people are currently unhoused. That’s because, as CalMatters housing reporter Manuela Tobias notes, the pandemic prompted the state to cancel last January’s point-in-time count, when service providers and volunteers fan out across cities and counties to count the number of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters. And as omicron rages, many counties — including Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento, San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area — have postponed this year’s count, scheduled for Jan. 26-27, until Feb. 23-24.

Meanwhile, the state’s rent relief program is running short on money — something the Legislature’s new housing leader, Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland, identified as a top priority while talking with Manuela and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon on the “Gimme Shelter” podcast.

But advocates worry more aid won’t come before March, when most cities are set to allow landlords to resume evictions for nonpayment of rent.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 6,735,980 confirmed cases (+5% from previous day) and 77,270 deaths (+0.4% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 67,611,110 vaccine doses, and 72.2% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. California COVID updates

Sonia Vasquez and her daughter Angelique Sepulveda leave a back-to-school clinic in Los Angeles on Aug. 12, 2021. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

As omicron continues its rampage across California — contributing to Los Angeles County last week notching its highest daily average of COVID deaths in nearly 10 months and Sacramento County over the weekend breaking its all-time record for COVID hospitalizations — here’s a look at some key developments:

2. Rail thefts reignite crime debate

Thousands of stolen UPS packages line the Union Pacific rail lines in East Los Angeles on Jan. 14, 2022. Photo by Ted Soqui, SIPA USA

It was the tweet thread heard around the world: CBS Los Angeles photojournalist John Schreiber on Thursday posted a series of jaw-dropping photos of Los Angeles rail tracks covered in torn cardboard boxes, plastic wrappers and half-opened packages containing everything from COVID-19 tests to Louis Vuitton purses. The viral tweet thread illuminated a problem that had been ongoing for months, further jamming clogged supply chains: rampant rail theft. Union Pacific, which operates 275 miles of track in Los Angeles County, ran through the statistics in a December 2021 letter to District Attorney George Gascón: A 160% increase in criminal rail theft compared to the year before. Around $5 million in losses. An average of 90 containers compromised each day. To make matters worse, 17 Union Pacific cars on Saturday derailed near the area of previous mass thefts, prompting indefinite road and rail closures.

The rail thefts have prompted renewed scrutiny of Gascón’s progressive criminal justice policies. Union Pacific told Gascón it is considering “serious changes to our operating plans to avoid Los Angeles County,” noting that rail thieves “are generally caught and released back onto the streets in less than 24 hours.” Meanwhile, Gascón is also under fire in two other high-profile cases: First, his refusal to try a transgender woman as an adult for a crime she committed two weeks shy of her 18th birthday — sexually assaulting a 10-year-old-girl in a Denny’s bathroom stall. Second, the apparent gang-related murder of an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer. The federal government was asked to prosecute the case instead of Gascón, whose office planned “to prosecute a simple murder with no gun enhancements, no gang enhancements, nothing. And that really did not cover the depravity of this crime,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

3. State grapples with surging fentanyl deaths

A behavioral health fellow with the Baltimore City Health Department displays a sample of Narcan nasal spray on Jan. 23, 2018. Photo by Patrick Semansky, AP Photo

How should California address a drug epidemic — supercharged by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl — that killed about 10,000 residents during the year-long period that ended April 2021? One approach is exemplified by Newsom’s proposal to funnel $50 million into educating young people about the risks of opioids and fentanyl through preventative measures, harm-reduction messaging, or both, Emily Forschen, Itzel Luna and Colleen Murphy report for CalMatters’ College Journalism Network. The rise of the mega-potent fentanyl, which is often mixed into other drugs without the user’s knowledge, has posed new challenges for public health policymakers.

District attorneys in Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties have taken a different approach: charging drug dealers with murder in fentanyl-related deaths. But public defenders say that’s illegal, with at least one Orange County attorney instructing his client to hum loudly to avoid hearing the warning. State lawmakers, meanwhile, shot down last week — for the second year in a row — a bipartisan proposal that would have required prosecutors to warn dealers that they could be charged with murder for fatal overdoses resulting from fentanyl-infused drugs.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California, which doesn’t have a positive track record of managing high-concept policies, is embarking on a vastly different approach to medical and social services.

It’s time to reform the Gann Limit: Although California’s budget is flush with cash, a decades-old ballot measure could block the state from making the bold investments needed for all residents to share in the wealth, argues Scott Graves of the California Budget & Policy Center.

Fixing problems in the fast-food industry: By passing the FAST Recovery Act, state lawmakers would support small-business owners while also increasing protections for essential workers, writes Catherine Fisk, a UC Berkeley Law School professor.

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Other things worth your time

California nurse, 70, violently attacked at bus station, dies in hospital she served at for 38 years. // CNN

$7 million of PPE left outside, damaged by storms in Bay Area. // Los Angeles Times

Schwarzenegger: We put solar panels on 1 million California roofs, but that win is now under threat. // New York Times

For PG&E probation judge William Alsup, California’s wildfire crisis is personal. // San Francisco Chronicle

Lobbyists told state insurance chief they represented company at center of campaign scandal, new filing says. // San Diego Union-Tribune

California firm to pay $1.5 million for illegally obtaining financial data from millions of consumers. // Mercury News

California judge says Google’s confidentiality agreements are illegal. // Washington Post

California suspends some disability claims, citing fraud. // Associated Press

Double dealing: Legal, illicit blur in California pot market. // Associated Press

Lawmakers move to tighten restrictions on sex-offending doctors. // Los Angeles Times

Single-payer health care advocates rip Gavin Newsom for ‘flip-flop.’ // San Francisco Chronicle

California college enrollment drops by 250,000 students in COVID years. // Los Angeles Times

Why are so many school families getting money for food in the mail? // San Diego Union-Tribune

Dangerous problems persist in county jails despite six years of federal oversight. // Los Angeles Times

CHP wants more security at Capitol to protect lawmakers. // Sacramento Bee

He posted a California falconry test online and was charged with a crime. // Sacramento Bee

Rural California residents confront growing risks from extreme weather. // Wall Street Journal

Satire (I think): Want true equity? California should force parents to give away their children. // San Francisco Chronicle

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...