SAN FRANCISCO — With tens of thousands of people living on the streets of California, the homelessness crisis has become the state’s defining issue. On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom went so far as to devote his entire annual state of the state address to the 150,000 Californians without homes.
“Let’s call it what it is: It’s a disgrace that the richest state in the richest nation, succeeding across so many sectors, is falling so far behind to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” Mr. Newsom told lawmakers in Sacramento. “Every day, the California dream is dimmed by the wrenching reality of families and children and seniors living unfed on a concrete bed.”
Vulnerable to the charge that the problem has exploded under Democratic rule in California, Mr. Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, pleaded with — and at times admonished — legislators to take action.
“The hard truth is for too long we’ve ignored this problem,” Mr. Newsom said. “We turned away.”
Homelessness has become pervasive in California, from the rural North to the sun-kissed coastal cities, and it has exposed the stark inequality in the state, whose economy would rank as the world’s fifth largest if it were an independent country. Living in the shadow of the biggest names in technology — just a few dozen miles from the campuses of Apple, Google and Facebook — are hundreds of clusters of homeless people, in makeshift compounds that resemble some of the world’s most destitute refugee camps.
Yet the political resistance Mr. Newsom faces in addressing the issue was quickly made clear on Wednesday. It was evident in the lukewarm response he received when he challenged legislators to revive a bill that died in the State Senate just last month, a major piece of legislation that would override local zoning rules to allow new high-density housing near transit lines. Mr. Newsom said California could not wait any longer to build more housing.
“The public has lost patience, you have all lost patience, and so have I,” Mr. Newsom said.
Mr. Newsom laid out a series of proposals, and repeated an offer to work with the Trump administration, which has used the issue as a political cudgel, taking Democratic leaders to task for presiding over a worsening homelessness crisis despite billions of dollars spent to address it.
In the running battles between California and the Trump administration, the president and conservative media have hammered Democrats over the street conditions of many California cities, citing the tens of thousands of hypodermic needles and the human waste picked up from sidewalks.
Mr. Newsom’s call for urgent measures comes less than two weeks before the primaries of Super Tuesday, when California will be a key focus, and at a time when inequality remains a sustained talking point in the race for the Democratic nomination for president.
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In his speech, Mr. Newsom pointed out a stark dichotomy in California’s economy. It has world-beating technology companies, and grew by an average of 3.8 percent annually over the past five years, faster than the United States overall, which expanded by 2.5 percent a year over the same period.
California, the governor remarked, “is the rocket fuel powering America’s resurgence.”
Yet federal data show that California was also by far the largest contributor to the increase in homelessness across the nation last year. The state has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, driven to a large degree by high housing costs. The average purchase price of a home in California now exceeds $500,000.
Homelessness declined in most states in 2019, compared with the year before, according to a report published in January by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. But in California, it increased by 16 percent, or 21,306 people, the report said.
Mr. Newsom called homelessness a national crisis in his speech, but did not acknowledge the outsized role that California plays in the problem. Nearly half of all unsheltered people in the United States live in California, though the state accounts for just 12 percent of the U.S. population.
But Mr. Newsom did not hold back from describing the severity of the problem, saying at one point, “We own it.”
Parts of the governor’s speech called for immediate, concrete measures. He announced that 286 state-owned properties, including fairgrounds, armories and vacant lots, were available as of Wednesday for local governments to use for “homelessness solutions.”
One hundred camping trailers used by the state during emergencies would be deployed across the state for temporary shelter, he said.
Over the past two years, California has allocated $1.5 billion to help local governments deal with homelessness. Mr. Newsom said the legislature should dedicate permanent revenue streams to fighting the problem.
Mr. Newsom focused on people with mental health problems, and called on the legislature for an additional $695 million to help them. He also called for a commitment “right now, this year” to eliminate red tape and delays in building critically needed housing.
Even with all the additional funding to combat homelessness, Mr. Newsom faces an uphill battle. For decades, many efforts to build housing have been stymied by resistance at the local level — mayors, supervisors and their constituents.
“I respect local control, but not at the cost of creating a two-class California,” Mr. Newsom said.
Other parts of his speech were aspirational. In addressing the large number of people with mental health problems on the streets, Mr. Newsom said that housing and health should not be divorced from each other.
“Doctors should be able to write prescriptions for housing the same way they do for insulin and antibiotics,” he said.
Although the total number of homeless people in California was higher in the early part of this decade than it is now, the issue, along with the shortage of housing, consistently ranks in surveys as the problem that concerns Californians the most.
Most major cities in the state have seen sharp increases over the past year in the number of people living outside, and encampments have multiplied not only in the populous coastal cities but in rural areas, too. The city of San Francisco has 8,000 homeless people, according to a count conducted earlier in the year — a 17 percent increase from 2017, the last time a count was conducted. Other nearby cities have seen even larger increases, including San Jose (up 42 percent from two years ago) and Oakland (up 47 percent).
There are an estimated 59,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles County, according to a point-in-time count conducted earlier this year by the county; the figure is about a 12 percent increase from 2018. Of those, about 44,000 were estimated to be unsheltered, or 75 percent.
California voters have heard countless promises to end homelessness in recent decades, only to see the problem grow worse. Mr. Newsom closed his speech with lines that his antagonists may keep in their back pockets.
“I don’t think homelessness can be solved — I know homelessness can be solved,” the governor said. “This is our cause. This is our calling.”
But there remains much skepticism, particularly among the homeless. John Hebbring, a handyman who lives in an Oakland homeless encampment and scratches out a living serving eviction notices, said he had heard about the governor’s speech but did not see much hope in it.
“There’s a lot of talk about homelessness, but nothing is being done about it,” Mr. Hebbring said. “For lack of a better term, we feel invisible. We are all on the fringe.”