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One year in, Gov. Gavin Newsom shows bold action, but California’s homelessness crisis deepens

California’s homeless population jumped 16 percent to 151,278 people, from January 2018 to January 2019, according to a recent federal report. California’s homeless population jumped 16 percent to 151,278 people, from January 2018 to January 2019, according to a recent federal report.

California’s homeless population jumped 16 percent to 151,278 people, from January 2018 to January 2019, according to a recent federal report.

Chris Nichols
By Chris Nichols January 13, 2020

During his first year as governor, Gavin Newsom took major steps to tackle California’s increasingly-visible homelessness crisis. He approved $1 billion in his first budget to help cities build emergency shelters and signed 13 bills last fall, many to speed up shelter construction. 

This week, the Democratic governor ordered state agencies to find government property to house people living on the streets. He also proposed a new $750 million fund to pay for rent and build housing for homeless people, along with another nearly $700 million to address health needs for the state’s chronically homeless. 

"On the issue of homelessness, we are investing over a billion dollars yet again to address the issue that defines our times," Newsom said at a press conference in Sacramento on Friday announcing his budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

Advocates have praised Newsom’s leadership, saying he’s made historic investments and steady progress on his promise to tackle this human emergency. PolitiFact California’s review of the governor’s first year shows bold action, but also a growing state crisis that could become a political liability for the governor. 

In the year before Newsom took office, California’s homeless population jumped 16 percent to 151,278 people, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. During the same period, January 2018 to January 2019, the nation’s total increased just 3 percent. 

The report also found 70 percent of California’s homeless people are unsheltered, meaning they live on the street, in a car or abandoned building. That’s a slight uptick in the share who are unsheltered. 

A challenge that will 'take decades' to solve

Chris Martin is a legislative advocate on homelessness at the nonprofit Housing California. He said Newsom’s budget proposals show the crisis remains a top priority.  

"These kind of commitments, we’ve never seen before in state government," Martin said. "He came in and really made an impact right away.

He said he was particularly pleased with Newsom’s plan to pay for rental assistance for homeless people, calling such a move both a short-term and long-term fix. 

Martin said it’s not realistic that Newsom will fully solve the problem.

"It’s a challenge that’s decades in the making and will take decades to get out of," he added. 

‘People want this resolved now’

Politically-speaking, Newsom doesn’t have that much time. 

"People want this resolved now," said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based Republican political consultant.

The state’s emergency is so visible and stark, Californians will judge the governor by what they see on the streets, not just his actions at the Capitol, he added.

"There is going to have to be less tents under freeway overpasses," Madrid said. "There’s going to have to be less people sleeping in sleeping bags on cardboard mattresses on the sidewalks. And if that doesn’t happen immediately, this could blossom into a full-fledged political problem for the governor." 

Poll shows mounting concern

Californians are growing more concerned about the issue. A Public Policy Institute of California survey in October found 15 percent cited homelessness as the state’s biggest problem, tied with the economy for the top problems overall. It was the first time homelessness has ever been ranked at the top in more than two decades of PPIC surveys.  

The poll was taken in mid-September, about the same time President Donald Trump ramped up his criticism of California’s homeless crisis and its state leaders, Newsom chief among them. The president has continued to attack Newsom over the issue through his Twitter feed. 

"California and New York must do something about their TREMENDOUS Homeless problems. They are setting records!" Trump tweeted last month. "If their Governors can’t handle the situation, which they should be able to do very easily, they must call and ‘politely’ ask for help. Would be so easy with competence!"

Newsom was asked about Trump’s criticism during a press conference last week and responded: "He’s tweeting, we’re doing something. We don’t need him to identify this problem." 

We found Newsom hasn’t moved forward on every campaign pledge on homelessness. Running for governor, he promised to appoint a cabinet-level homelessness czar ‒ a promise we rated ‘Stalled’ last fall after a lack of action. Newsom offered his latest explanation at the news conference last week: "You want to know who the homeless czar is? I’m the homeless czar in the state of California." 

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who co-chairs the governor’s statewide commission on homelessness, said Newsom has accomplished quite a bit despite the criticism he’s faced.  

"He is the first governor ever, at least in my memory, who is prioritizing homelessness and mental health," Steinberg told CapRadio in an interview this week. "And he deserves an enormous amount of credit for it. He’s going to need a lot of help because he can’t do it alone." 

Steinberg said he does not think that Californians expect Newsom to solve the issue. 

"But they rightfully expect that we’re going to do everything at every level of government to consolidate resources, to create a sense of urgency and to make the problem better. And that’s what Gov. Newsom’s proposals begin to do," the mayor added. 

Here's specifically what Newsom pledged during his campaign and what we’re tracking:

"Expand social services, healthcare (including mental health), bridge housing, and permanent supportive housing" for homeless people.

-- Gavin Newsom for Governor 2018 website

Newsom’s budget and legislative actions represent progress on this stubborn, complex problem. We continue to rate his promise 'In the Works.'

In the Works — This indicates the promise has been proposed or is being considered.

Track Gov. Gavin Newsom's progress, or lack thereof, on his campaign promises on our Newsom-Meter page.

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Our Sources

Gov. Gavin Newsom, budget press conference, Jan. 10, 2020

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, interview with Capital Public Radio, Jan. 9, 2020

Mike Madrid, political consultant, interview Jan. 9, 2020

Anya Lawler, housing advocate, Western Center on Law and Poverty, interview Jan. 8, 2020

Chris Martin, legislative advocate on homelessness, Housing California, interview Jan. 8, 2020

PolitiFact California, Gavin Newsom promised to expand homeless services. How is he doing?, Oct. 4, 2019

Capital Public Radio, ‘A Real Emergency’: Newsom Issues Executive Order To Use State Land, Travel Trailers, Hospitals For California Homeless Crisis, Jan. 8, 2019

PolitiFact California, A promise stalled: Eight months in, Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to hire a homelessness czar, Sept. 2, 2019

Public Policy Institute of California, PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government, September 2019

PolitiFact California, What has California Gov. Gavin Newsom done so far for the homeless?, Feb. 25, 2019

PolitiFact California, Dispelling myths about California's homeless, June 28, 2018

PolitiFact California, Has California's homeless population 'skyrocketed'? And how does it rate nationwide?, March 27, 2018

PolitiFact California, Fact-checking claims on California's unsheltered homeless population, July 25, 2019

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

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One year in, Gov. Gavin Newsom shows bold action, but California’s homelessness crisis deepens