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Can California figure out a way to house its growing homeless population?

Roughly a quarter of all homeless Americans live in California, where the rate of homelessness has increased 16 percent in the past year. Facing pressure from his constituents and President Trump, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made the issue his top priority and proposed an array of potential policy solutions. John Yang sits down with Anita Chabria of the Los Angeles Times to discuss the details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than half a million Americans are homeless on a given night, but on the West Coast, the problem has grown worse in recent years.

    And, as John Yang explains, that is especially pronounced in California.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the federal government says more than a quarter of America's homeless are in California. While homelessness fell in most states last year, in the Golden State, it rose 16 percent.

    The issue was the sole topic of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom's state of the state address.

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif.:

    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.

    The state of California can no longer treat homelessness and housing insecurity as someone else's problem, buried below other priorities that are much easier to win or better suited for sound bites. It is our responsibility. And it must be at the top of our agenda.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    The governor laid out a series of proposals and asked lawmakers to work with him.

    Anita Chabria covers California state politics and policy for The Los Angeles Times. She's based in Sacramento, which is where she is right now.

    Anita, thanks so much for joining us.

    This is not a few issue for California. The governor himself had to deal with this when he was mayor of San Francisco. Why now? Why is he saying this is at the top of the agenda for the next year?

  • Anita Chabria:

    I think there's a couple of reasons you're seeing it happen so visibly right now.

    One is not just that we have the largest homeless population in the country. It's that we have the largest unsheltered population. So we have more than 100,000 people actually living on our sidewalks, on our street corners, in our parks, in places where they are visible to our voters and our residents every day.

    It's a problem that's in the rural areas, it's in the suburbs, it's in front of our schools and our libraries and our grocery stores. And so, really, you're seeing a governor and a legislature that can't ignore it because it is visible every day.

  • John Yang:

    And he's getting pressure on this from the president, the president saying, if California can't solve this, the federal government will.

  • Anita Chabria:

    Absolutely.

    He's getting political pressure from multiple angles. So President Trump has been very vocal about the fact that some federal action, though not a lot of details on that, could happen if the state doesn't make progress.

    And he's facing it — Newsom is facing pressure from his own constituents. More than about a third of the state considers this their top priority as an issue. And, interestingly, a poll that just came out showed that almost 40 percent of Californians fear that they or someone they know could fall into homelessness.

    So, it's a real fear here that the economic inequality, the rising housing prices, the systemic racism that we're addressing throughout the country are all things that are increasing homelessness for average people.

  • John Yang:

    You have talked about — you just now talked about some of the pressures that are adding to this problem. What is the governor proposing?

  • Anita Chabria:

    The governor is proposing a multitude of things.

    Most recently, he came up with $750 million that he'd like to put towards it as one-time funding kind of immediately. He's asking the legislature to fast-track that money. It would go towards rental assistance. It would go towards stabilizing board-and-care homes, which are — help people with disabilities or mental illness have shelter and care.

    It would go towards some affordable housing things. He's also asking the state to streamline how we can place — we can force people to have mental health treatment, how we can place them in conservatorships. And he's asking for some money for affordable housing as well.

    One of the most interesting things that is the big topic in the state right now is accountability. The governor is asking for accountability. We have spent $1.5 billion or allocated $1.5 billion over the past couple years to address homelessness, where we haven't really tracked that money very well or seen what the results are from it.

    So there's a real big push now to make sure that we keep track of the money we're spending and make sure it shows results.

  • John Yang:

    You talked about — talking about money, the governor called for a dedicated, sustained revenue stream.

    It sounds like a new tax. It could be. Is this issue of such big concern in California that people will support new taxes to address it?

  • Anita Chabria:

    I think that's going to be the big question.

    So, originally, the governor didn't want to have ongoing funding, precisely for that reason, to not put another burden on the general fund and to not have to go after taxes. So, he had originally pushed for one-time funding of $750 million.

    And you saw a lot of pushback from the groups that are actually doing homeless work and from a lot of the legislators, saying, no, we simply can't fix this with one shot of money.

    And so now the question does become, what is the appetite for people to be taxed on it? One idea that has been floated is, we have a millionaires tax here that pays for mental health services, and perhaps extending that tax, increasing it on our wealthiest residents.

    But, really, that's going to be the debate coming up for the next couple of months is, if you pay for it ongoing, how do you pay for it?

  • John Yang:

    How much support is there in the legislature, how much support is there among the voters for the other things he talked about in his speech?

  • Anita Chabria:

    There is tremendous support for action.

    So what that action is, I think people just want to see results. Another recent poll that came out said that more than 50 percent of people are in support of removing homeless encampments from public space.

    So, there's a real desire to see people moved from this unsheltered situation into shelters and permanent housing. I just think it's how we do that. The devil is going to be in the details in terms of public support.

    The fact is, is, we don't have enough shelters. We have don't have enough affordable housing. So there is nothing we can do in the very, very immediate sense to get people into permanent housing, because it doesn't exist.

    So we're at this strange point where we have to make sure that we're doing something in the short term, while really looking toward those long-term solutions, because it's a problem that ultimately you need a house to solve. And we don't have the houses.

  • John Yang:

    Anita Chabria of The Los Angeles Times in Sacramento, thank you very much.

  • Anita Chabria:

    Thank you.

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