California’s unhoused in the eye of the storm

Your guide to California policy and politics
Sameea Kamal BY Sameea Kamal January 10, 2023
Presented by UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute, Western States Petroleum Association, FIX PAGA: A Better, Fairer Way for Workers and Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership

California’s unhoused in the eye of the storm

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Now, on to the news: 

Rebekah Rohde, 40, and Steven Sorensen, 61, are two of at least 14 people killed by the recent storms — and both were unhoused. The Sacramento County Coroner reported Monday that both were found with trees collapsed onto their tents.

It’s a tragic — and telling — convergence of two California crises: extreme weather and worsening homelessness.

The current series of storms (“parade of cyclones” is the latest National Weather Service warning) pummeled communities with as much as 8 inches of rain and wind gusts of nearly 70 mph, causing power outages, school shutdowns and flood risks, especially in coastal regions and areas burned by wildfires. They include the coastal enclave of Montecito in Santa Barbara County, where evacuations were ordered on Monday, five years to the day that mudslides killed 23 people and destroyed 130 homes.   

Across the state, some of the most vulnerable include the unhoused, whose numbers have increased by at least 22,500 in the last three years to about 172,000.   

Local shelters and warming centers don’t always accommodate the needs of homeless people, said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. People have to leave their belongings behind. Others don’t know about the centers, or don’t have a way to get there — gaps he says the city and county could do more to bridge.

  • Erlenbusch told me: “The deaths of our two unhoused neighbors that we know of were preventable if there had been the kind of programs I’m talking about to bring inside. At the very least, do some education to people: Move off the levees, make sure your tent is not under a big tree — the sort of obvious education to people experiencing homelessness so that they stay safe.” 

In San Francisco, despite a preliminary injunction issued last September, the city is allegedly still doing sweeps of homeless encampments, including one on Jan. 4, the day of the bomb cyclone in Northern California, SFGate reports

On Monday, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said it met with more than 400 community organizations in a “first-of-its-kind effort” to mobilize resources to help the homeless, those with disabilities and other “vulnerable communities.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request to the federal government for an emergency declaration was approved late Sunday. Newsom has proposed $202 million in his budget proposal to ramp up flood protection. He plans to unveil the rest of his proposal this morning, after which he’s scheduled to survey the state’s response to the storms. “Our message to Californians is simple: Be hyper-vigilant,” he said in a statement.

In their budget priorities, Senate Republicans called Monday for more money for water storage: 

  • “The current wave of storms highlights the importance of building the Sites Reservoir and providing water conveyance in critical areas of the state. This will provide water storage for 1.5 million homes per year and promote much-needed water access for California’s food producers.”

CalMatters covers the Legislature: With the state Legislature back in session, CalMatters has you covered with guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have Spanish-language versions for the Legislature’s demographics and the state government explainer.  


1 When to release water from reservoirs?

Folsom Dam in El Dorado County
Water is released from Folsom Dam in El Dorado County on January 6, 2023. Photo by Ken James, California Department of Water Resources

From CalMatters water reporter Alastair Bland: On the subject of reservoirs, as rain continues to drench the now-waterlogged slopes and soils of the Sierra Nevada foothills, state water officials are walking the fine line between retaining water while releasing enough of it downriver to prevent damaging flooding, or, in the worst-case scenario, a blown-out dam. This can mean spilling water from reservoirs that are nowhere near full.

  • Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth: “Smaller reservoirs in the state are making flood releases, but a lot of the larger reservoirs are not.” 

Lake Oroville, most notably, has plenty of room to hold more water, John Yarbrough, the State Water Project’s assistant deputy director, said Monday. The lake currently contains about 1.55 million acre-feet — 44% of its capacity. That’s almost 600,000 acre-feet more than it held a month ago, and in the next 10 days another 500,000 acre-feet are expected to enter the reservoir. But it’s far from overflowing, as it did in 2017. 

“Even with that expected inflow, we have a lot of capacity at Lake Oroville,” Yarbrough said. 

At Lake Del Valle, in the East Bay’s reservoir network, it’s a different story. “We’re starting to get into the flood reservation space,” Yarbrough said. This has prompted officials to release water at an accelerated rate of about 2,000 cubic feet per second. 

Particular reservoirs have a tendency to rapidly fill, said Mike Anderson, a climatologist with the state Department of Water Resources. Among these are the American River’s Folsom Lake and Millerton Lake, on the San Joaquin River.

In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, operations have changed to take advantage of the excess water. The pumps that export water south have been revved up from a putter of 300 cubic feet per second to a roaring 3,000, Yarbrough said. Still, this export system is operating at a scant one-third of capacity. Officials hope to throttle the pumps even higher, but for now they can’t. That’s to avoid harming threatened and endangered fish species, which officials believe may be within reach of the pumps’ influence. 

2 State government gets its bearings

Then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber gives a press conference in the state capitol on July 8, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber gives a press conference at the state Capitol on July 8, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Secretary of State Shirley Weber was sworn into office for her first full term Monday — one of the last statewide elected officials to take the oath. She was appointed in 2020, succeeding Alex Padilla. 

At the ceremony, she emphasized the fact that the November elections in California faced no challenges or audits, crediting county officials who carried them out. But she also noted that the state needs to do more to get all eligible voters registered.

And speaking of transitions, one to watch this session is whether Assembly Democrats unite after the deal brokered for Assemblymember Robert Rivas of Salinas to take over the powerful role of speaker from Anthony Rendon of Lakewood at the end of June. 

  • “The idea that the tools of the Speaker’s office would be leveraged to continue to fracture the body is, I think, something that nobody wants to see. And I believe that’s true for Speaker Rendon, as well,” Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, a Culver City Democrat, told the Sacramento Bee

3 Early efforts to help Californians

Lawmakers on the Assembly floor
Assemblymember Diane Dixon, a Newport Beach Republican, talks with fellow legislators on the Assembly floor on Jan. 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

It’s early in the legislative session (lawmakers’ deadline to introduce bills isn’t until mid-February), but some new bills seek to help lower-income Californians.

  • Assembly Bill 94, by Assemblymember Laurie Davies, a San Juan Capistrano Republican, seeks to stop counties from calling residents from blocked numbers when notifying them of eligibility for programs such as CalFresh and CalWORKs

    Davies tweeted Monday: “If Californians are eligible for these programs, they deserve to know who called them and have a way to call them back for information!”
  • Assemblymember David Alvarez, a Democrat from San Diego County, meanwhile, has introduced AB 91, a “bi-national tuition exemption pilot program” to allow low-income students who reside within 45 miles from the California-Mexico border to attend local community colleges tuition-free. Getting more students enrolled would help the county meet its workforce training goals, according to Alvarez’s office. 
  • And a bill that Newsom vetoed last year is getting another push: Advocates and students plan to rally at the state Capitol today to call for a statewide student transit pass bill. Transit expenses can add to the already high costs of college that push out many low-income students, reports Carmen Gonzalez of the CalMatters College Journalism Network.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Laurie Davies

Laurie Davies

State Assembly, District 74 (Oceanside)

Laurie Davies

State Assembly, District 74 (Oceanside)

How she voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 74 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 35%
GOP 35%
No party 23%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Laurie Davies has taken at least $184,000 from the Finance, Insurance & Real Estate sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents 12% of her total campaign contributions.

David Alvarez

David Alvarez

State Assembly, District 80 (Chula Vista)

David Alvarez

State Assembly, District 80 (Chula Vista)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 80 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 47%
GOP 20%
No party 26%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. David Alvarez has taken at least $217,000 from the Finance, Insurance & Real Estate sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 10% of his total campaign contributions.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The California Air Resources Board’s plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2045 is long on data and promises, but short on  specific steps, or the downsides and tradeoffs.


Other things worth your time

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Harvey Weinstein sentencing on rape conviction delayed to February so attorneys can file for a new trial // Press Democrat

Santa Clara County sees surge in new naturalized citizens // San Jose Spotlight 

A general is fired from the scandal-plagued California National Guard // Los Angeles Times 

Under California’s new pay transparency law, Netflix and Tesla post salary ranges – and they’re wide // Bloomberg

Where’s my Middle Class Tax Refund? Many still await deposits // Mercury News

California’s child care aid misses hundreds of thousands of families who need it // San Diego Union-Tribune

See you tomorrow


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