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Newsom Invests Billions into Homelessness, but Is It Enough?

The California governor last year poured $12 billion into homeless housing and services and wants to invest another $1.5 billion next year. But advocates want long-term investments instead of one-time grants.

(TNS) — After pouring an unprecedented $12 billion into homeless housing and services last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom now is turning to the massive tent camps, shanty-towns and make-shift RV parks that have taken over California's streets, parks and open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a never-before-seen effort, the governor is doling out $50 million this winter to help cities and counties clear out camps and house people living outside. San Jose, Richmond and Santa Cruz are among those that might benefit. Newsom hopes to increase that investment 10-fold in the coming year's budget and add $1.5 billion to house people with behavioral health conditions. In charge of it all will be Newsom's new state homelessness council, co-chaired by none other than the face of California's COVID response — Dr. Mark Ghaly.

"This is probably one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime type funding that we're seeing from the state," said Michelle Milam, crime prevention manager for the Richmond Police Department and a member of the city's homelessness task force. "We've never seen this kind of investment from the state for encampments."

She and other local officials and nonprofit leaders, who have been battling a growing homelessness crisis for years with little help from the state, are grateful and hopeful. But, they say, the money won't be nearly enough. The funds Newsom has set aside for encampments are one-time grants, not the kind of ongoing investment cities need to make a lasting dent in finding permanent homes for unhoused Californians, experts say.

They acknowledge that focusing on encampments is a smart political move by the governor, but getting people out of camps and into temporary shelters isn't a solution if there is no affordable housing.

"I think we would want to look at it a little bit more holistically," said Christopher Martin, policy director for the advocacy organization Housing California. "We need to address all facets of homelessness, not just encampments."

Richmond is one of more than three dozen cities and counties that have applied for one of Newsom's new encampment resolution grants, which will be awarded by March 1. Although there is about $50 million available, the state has received requests for $120 million. Newsom has proposed allocating another $500 million in this year's budget.

If selected, Richmond would use the money to clear a camp of more than 100 people living off Castro Street in cars, RVs and trailers. Echoing the experience of many cities, such camps exploded in Richmond during the pandemic as shelters reduced their capacity and federal health officials recommended leaving encampments be. With the money from the state — Milam is hoping for several million dollars — Richmond would create a housing trust fund exclusively for Castro Street occupants to use for rent, job training, vehicle repairs and anything else that could help them move into stable housing.

"It's more than just closing down an encampment," Milam said. "It's making sure people have an opportunity to successfully transition."

San Jose also has applied for a grant, requesting $2 million to house people camped along the Guadalupe River Trail between Arena Green and the Children's Discovery Museum.

And in Santa Cruz County, officials are hoping the money would help them try out a new strategy that gets people more involved in finding their own housing, said Robert Ratner, the county's director of Housing for Health. They would award "housing scholarships" to encampment residents, and then work with the residents to spend that money in whatever way makes most sense for them.

The governor's office also is leading a "100-day challenge" this year focused on homeless encampments. A handful of counties, including Santa Cruz and Sacramento, will work with the Rapid Results Institute on new solutions to the crisis. Sacramento County hopes to house 43 people by April 14 during the program, and start another 43 on the path toward housing. Santa Cruz County hopes to house 40 people and get another 100 into the pipeline.

And this year, Newsom launched a new agency to oversee the state's efforts on homelessness — the California Interagency Council on Homelessness, co-chaired by Ghaly and Business, Consumer Services and Housing Secretary Lourdes Castro Ramírez. The agency has new authority to hold cities and counties accountable. When seeking funding, local officials now must lay out detailed plans for the money. If they don't meet certain benchmarks, they get less money.

When asked if Newsom's strategies to reduce homeless encampments will work, Jason Elliott, senior counselor to the governor, said they already are.

"We understand people are frustrated. But we also are proud of 58,000 people who have come off the streets since this pandemic broke open," he said, referring to Newsom's Project Roomkey, which moved unhoused people into hotels, and Homekey, which created longer-term housing. "That's how much worse it would have been."

But one-time grants only go so far, Milam said. For years, Richmond had been working on opening a safe-parking site for people living in RVs. After an intense backlash from some neighbors, the city ultimately . Milam says that's where the state needs to step in.

"We need some support from the state. We're drowning," Milam said. "The funding helps. We're very appreciative of the funding. But there's got to be more at the policy level to help us come up with some creative solutions to try to support people."

Angelina Peña, who lives in an RV in the Castro Street encampment in Richmond, has lost faith in the state and in her city to give unhoused people the help they need. Peña, who makes $18 an hour doing outreach for nonprofit Safe, Organized Spaces three days a week, dreams of having her own home, opening a thrift store and getting custody back of her two sons.

A grant from the state could go a long way toward helping her reach those goals. But after many disappointments, Peña isn't holding her breath.

"I'm not going to depend on them. I can't," she said. "It's hard to take their word for it because they haven't come through."

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