Homelessness is at an epidemic level in California. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 23 years, and I’ve watched as the situation has gotten more and more extreme. California has one quarter of the nation’s homeless population and half of its unsheltered homeless population.
So many people are getting evicted or priced out of their homes, and, lacking other options, are forced to sleep in their cars, in shelters, on the street, or on friends’ couches. And, people suffering from mental illness and addiction aren’t receiving the support and treatment they need, putting them at added risk of homelessness. The anguish that exists every single day on our streets is heartbreaking to witness. It can also lead to a sense of hopelessness.
That’s why I was heartened to see Governor Gavin Newsom dedicated his entire State of the State address to discussing how he intends to fix our intertwined homelessness and housing crises. There are few more pressing issues facing California, and I welcome Governor Newsom’s leadership here.
We don’t only have a homelessness crisis in California. We also have an unsheltered homelessness crisis. Our state has particularly high rates of unsheltered homelessness (72%), which is clear when you walk around the streets of our major cities. There aren’t enough shelter beds to provide individuals experiencing homelessness a safe place to sleep at night, meaning it’s also harder for them to access crucial services to help get their lives on track. This isn’t only a problem in major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, but increasingly in smaller cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
Addressing the Root Cause: Housing Costs
Since I was elected, I’ve worked tirelessly on legislation to address the root causes of our homelessness crisis. It’s clear that sky-high housing costs are tied to an increase in homelessness. California faces a 3.5 million home shortage — we rank 49 out of 50 states in homes per capita — and this shortage is absolutely exacerbating homelessness. To help address this, I authored and passed several pieces off legislation to structurally fix our extreme housing imbalance. I authored Senate Bill 35, which streamlines housing approvals. SB 35 is already streamlining more than a thousand units of affordable housing in San Francisco and is forcing exclusionary suburbs to approve housing as well. I also authored Senate Bill 828, which is dramatically increasing cities’ housing goals around the state, matching those goals with our actual housing needs. More recently, I authored Senate Bill 50, to significantly increase housing — including affordable housing — near public transportation and jobs. While SB 50 did not move forward, it played a significant role moving the conversation forward about whether we’re serious as a state in solving this crisis.
We must also keep people stable in the housing they have. In that spirit, I co-authored Assemblymember David Chiu’s legislation (AB 1482) create a statewide rent cap and just cause protections for tenants. We have more work to do in stabilizing low income tenants in their homes, but we’re making progress.
Mental Health and Addiction
While most homeless people are neither mentally ill nor addicted — most simply lack the financial means to afford the shortage-induced obscene cost of housing — mental health and addiction play a role in housing insecurity for a subset of homeless people. I’m currently authoring legislation (SB 855) to force insurance companies to cover all medically necessary mental health and addiction treatment, not just crisis care, because people need help before they’re in crisis and heading toward homelessness. We’re also working to pass legislation to allow for safe injection sites (AB 362) so that people aren’t injecting on our streets and instead are being helped toward recovery services. We’re also working on legislation to address the meth crisis on our streets.
I also passed legislation (SB 1004) to expand mental health prevention resources for teenagers and college-age young people, since we need to intervene and help kids before they’re in crisis, to prevent them from becoming the next generation of chronically homeless individuals.
A small minority of homeless people are so severely debilitated — and are spiraling toward death — that they aren’t capable of accepting voluntary mental health and addiction services. For this limited group of people, extra intervention is needed, including the possibility of conservatorship in order to save people’s lives. To that end, I also authored Senate Bills 40 and 1045, which created a new conservatorship specific for these individuals and which San Francisco is currently implementing. The goal of these conservatorships is to stabilize people, get them healthy, and transition them into permanent housing.
Expanding Shelter Access
Last week, I introduced new legislation to ensure we expand our shelter capacity. Senate Bill 1138 will ensure that cities are doing their part to build shelters. Right now, some municipalities avoid having to build shelters by zoning for them in areas where there is no space to actually build a shelter, or zoning in remote industrial areas where no one would ever build a shelter. That’s a fundamentally NIMBY attitude and it cannot stand. SB 1138 builds on my legislation from last year, which passed as part of the budget, to streamline and expedite permitting for navigation centers (SB 48).
In the coming weeks, I’ll be introducing additional legislation to expand various types of housing, including affordable housing for low income people, in California.
Creating enough housing for all Californians, and ending the humanitarian disaster on our streets, are among the core moral challenges of our time. We must meet that challenge, and I’ll do everything in my power to help California do so.