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California politicians point fingers as tolerance of homelessness wears thin

This story appeared on Calmatters

A homeless encampment on W Street and Alhambra Boulevard in Sacramento on April 11, 2023.

In summary

As California’s homelessness crisis continues, its politicians are carping over who should be held responsible for resolving it.

Many political promises have been made, many billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent and many programs have been launched, but the state’s homelessness crisis continues to worsen and Californians’ tolerance has worn thin.

A few months ago, the Public Policy Institute of California took the public’s temperature on the issue and found that overwhelming majorities of the state’s adults want something done, pronto. It’s one of the few major issues that bridges the state’s otherwise wide partisan divide.

“Things have shifted, and everybody’s jobs are on the damn line, and they should be,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told a Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last week. “We’re only interested in real results, and that’s our commitment to all of you.”

Underscoring the situation’s fraught politics, Newsom has denounced a federal magistrate who blocked San Francisco’s plans to clean up squalid encampments, pledged that the state will intervene in the case and expressed hope that a very conservative U.S. Supreme Court might lift the ban.

“That’s a hell of a statement coming from a progressive Democrat from California that says we need help from the Supreme Court,” Newsom said during his Dreamforce interview.

Newsom said that during an unannounced visit to San Francisco – a city he once governed as mayor – he saw a disgusting level of drug abuse near a city police station.

“People aren’t giving a damn that any of us are there,” he said. “They were dealing, were using, were abusing, and there was a police department substation, and it was all happening across the street. All I thought was, how damn demoralized everybody must be. There go all our tax dollars and who the hell is running this place?”

Who indeed?

The social and political angst in San Francisco over how to do something effective about homelessness is not confined to that city. There are at least 170,000 people living on the streets in California and every large city faces its version of the syndrome.

Karen Bass was elected mayor of Los Angeles on her pledge to clean up its streets but has only been able to tinker at the margins, while the numbers of the unhoused have continued to climb.

The sidewalks of Sacramento near the state Capitol are packed with encampments of homeless men and women, sparking a sharp clash between the city’s mayor, former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, and Sacramento County’s newly elected district attorney, Thien Ho.

For weeks, Ho issued public denunciations of city officials for, he said, failing to enforce anti-camping laws and at one point even threatened to issue criminal charges against them.

Last week, Ho filed a civil lawsuit against the city, alleging its inaction is creating a public nuisance. A companion suit was filed by a coalition of city residents and business owners.

“Enough is enough,” Ho told The Sacramento Bee. “We need to address this public safety crisis for both the housed and the unhoused.”

The 36-page lawsuit describes Sacramento as a once-thriving city that faces “descent into decay and this utter collapse into chaos,” threatening both housed and unhoused residents.

“The frustration that members of our community feel is absolutely justified,” Steinberg said in a statement, defending steps the city has taken to deal with the issue, and criticizing Ho’s intervention.

“Frankly,” Steinberg said, “we have no time for the district attorney’s performative distraction from the hard work we all need to do together to solve this complex social problem plaguing urban centers throughout the state and nation.”

The carping among politicians – all from the same party – tells us that they know the public will exact retribution if the crisis continues to worsen.

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