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.
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.
- Jonathan Russell of Bay Area Community Services: “We will very likely … see the impact on homelessness … slowly grow and accrue in coming months and years.”
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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.
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1. California COVID updates
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:
- Kids: COVID-19 hospitalizations among California’s children — especially those too young to go to school and the medically vulnerable — are at their highest levels since the pandemic began, challenging earlier notions that the virus largely bypasses kids, CalMatters’ Elizabeth Aguilera reports. A Riverside County infant less than a year old died this week after contracting COVID, and an Orange County child under the age of 5 died of COVID complications in December.
- Schools: Around 130,000 Los Angeles Unified students were absent from school on Friday, resulting in an average absentee rate of 66.8%, according to the Los Angeles Times. Culver City Unified is shuttering this week amid a surge in COVID cases, and overwhelmed districts are trying to adjust to new school contact tracing and quarantine guidelines outlined last week by the California Department of Public Health. It hasn’t gone over well with some officials: “I’ve tried to be nice about it, but I’m done: The California Department of Public Health has no understanding of how schools work,” Don Austin, superintendent of Palo Alto Unified, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
- Nursing homes and hospitals: As CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov discovered, the state quietly said Friday that it plans to send 330,000 rapid COVID tests to skilled nursing facilities to help visitors meet stringent testing requirements. Meanwhile, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, urged Californians to donate blood amid the “most severe blood shortage in the last 10 years.”
- Jails: Sacramento County is planning the early release of more than 200 inmates as another COVID outbreak sweeps through county jails.
2. Rail thefts reignite crime debate
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
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.
- Kirsten Vinther, a Cal Poly health educator and prevention specialist: “The biggest shift I see is that … we are not only attempting to educate students about the dangers inherent in the use of substances they are knowingly ingesting, we now also need to educate them about substances that they may not necessarily be choosing to use.”
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 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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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
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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
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Dangerous problems persist in county jails despite six years of federal oversight. // Los Angeles Times
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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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