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California governments need to be held accountable for consequences of homelessness

California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed an amendment to the California Constitution to push sanctions on cities, doing little to alleviate the homelessness issue. Short-term punishment is not the solution to overarching issues that go far beyond slapping cities’ wrists. (Creative Commons photo by Andre m via Wikimedia Commons)

By Deepto Mizan

Jan. 24, 2020 1:14 a.m.

California’s government is no stranger to inaction regarding homelessness.

But under a new proposal, Californians will have another way to distract themselves from doing anything about the situation.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed Jan. 13 to amend the California Constitution in a move that would allow voters to press legal sanctions on cities for inaction against homelessness.

Cities have been feeling the pressure for some time. Homelessness has increased annually statewide, rising by 16% from 2018 to 2019. In the middle of a prolonged housing crisis and rising rent prices, the homeless population of over 150,000 continues to be impacted with no signs of help.

California’s efforts, such as Proposition HHH, have done little to start resolving the issue, despite taking millions of taxpayer dollars since 2016. Out of 112 projects designed to house 9,000 to 14,000 people, 20 have begun construction and only one is currently operating.

And with a proposed amendment to the California Constitution that would allow voters to sanction cities and local governments for inaction against homelessness, the same cycle would continue, if only a bit more self-aware.

Short-term punishment would do little to actually target the issue, instead financially and legally punishing local constituents for their government’s failures. Consequences of repeated inaction will only force state and local governments to create temporary solutions to avoid a loss of public resources. And the amendment’s proposed sanctions will do little other than provide another roadblock for California cities – they surely won’t help in resolving the homelessness crisis.

California doesn’t need pressure from the ground up. Instead, it needs stronger economic and social oversight for current policy issues to combat homelessness.

The new homelessness task force, appointed by Newsom, is to be led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The group aims to reduce the population of people experiencing homelessness by granting voters the ability to enact legal sanctions against local governments and cities that do nothing against the issue.

But Newsom’s recent reallocation of state funds only adds to a continued history of underspending and mismanagement, effectively piling up cash reserves while the number of homeless people increases daily.

Although $1 billion was amassed for Proposition HHH, it’s still currently unable to match the continuously growing number of homeless people on the streets. And when considering low-income counties already facing resource issues, it seems unlikely an inaction-based lawsuit will help speed up the resolution process, or help the people it’s supposed to.

It’s clear there needs to be a revision for how the money is used to tackle homelessness. But, posing the risk of a lawsuit is only a form of leverage, said Gary Blasi, a professor of law at the School of Law.

“It would benefit advocacy against homelessness, but in the end it is a tool that does not actually generate any money or plans, just ideally pushes groups to work on a solution,” Blasi said. “It’s not a cure.”

Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at the Luskin School of Public Affairs, said that the plan has many undetermined factors that will influence how effective it would be against homelessness.

“The devil is in the details, and it would be mostly contingent on the consequences that would come up,” Lens said. “The question is, ‘To what extent would the state fund itself to fix the issue and what will they ask people to do?'”

On the other hand, some local officials believe the amendment could be effective in changing behavior.

Michael Skiles, president of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, said that the proposition could hold local governments accountable for building and zoning infrastructure to combat homelessness.

“Local neighborhoods have previously attempted to pass it off to other communities to deal with,” Skiles said. “This new amendment could help build accountability.”

It’s true that the idea has the potential to influence communities toward some sort of action – but it’s no cure against homelessness, and it shouldn’t be marketed as such. With a continued history of mismanagement, local governments will require continued state involvement in order to tackle homelessness. It’s unfair to expect local governments to promptly respond to legal issues, especially when those issues are compounded by the still-raging homelessness crisis. After all, the homelessness issue is not exclusive to a single district within California.

History cannot be changed, and it’s not worth trying to slow down the present to try to fix it.

Instead, communities need to focus on changing their actions under state guidance. And to do that, it’s hard to create a genuine shift when the only form of accountability is to avoid punishment.

There are two aspects to fixing the homelessness crisis: tangible plans with adequate funding and forms of accountability that are not isolated. And while one can’t work without the other, punishing cities with lawsuits will only ensure that neither of them works at all.

Attitudes toward homelessness need to change from a local issue to a statewide one. Compartmentalizing local issues is not the mindset that will solve California’s crisis.

It takes a combined effort, not a set of individual punishments.

Because when one of our neighbors is left on the streets, everyone shares the consequences.

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Deepto Mizan | Opinion columnist
Mizan is an Opinion columnist.
Mizan is an Opinion columnist.
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