Billions in funds aim to help California cities clean up homeless camps

After pouring an unprecedented $12 billion into housing and services for the homeless last year, Governor Gavin Newsom is now turning his attention to the sprawling tent camps, slums and makeshift RV parks that have taken over California’s streets, parks and open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an unprecedented effort, the governor is distributing $50 million this winter to help cities and counties clear camps and house people living outside. San Jose, Richmond and Santa Cruz are among those who could benefit. Newsom hopes to multiply this investment by 10 in the coming year’s budget and add $1.5 billion to house people with behavioral health issues. Newsom’s new State Homelessness Council will be in charge of everything, co-chaired by none other than the face of California’s COVID response – Dr. Mark Ghaly.

Newsom on homelessness:“We have to clean up these camps”

“This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-lifetime kind of funding that we see from the state,” said Michelle Milam, crime prevention officer for the Richmond Police Department and member of homelessness in the city. intervention force. “We have never seen this kind of state investment for the camps.”

She and other local officials and nonprofit leaders, who for years have struggled with a growing homelessness crisis with little help from the state, are grateful and hopeful. But, they say, money will not be 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 homeless Californians, experts say.

$50 million in camp ‘resolution’ grants far less than cities are asking for

They recognize that focusing on the encampments is a smart policy move by the governor, but getting people out of the camps and putting them in temporary shelters is not a solution if there is no affordable housing.

“I think we’d want to look at it a little more holistically,” said Christopher Martin, policy director at 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 approximately $50 million available, the state has received requests for $120 million. Newsom has offered to allocate an additional $500 million in this year’s budget.

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If selected, Richmond will use the money to clean up 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 capacity and federal health officials recommended leaving the encampments to be. With state money – Milam hopes several million dollars – Richmond would create a housing trust fund exclusively for the occupants of Castro Street to use for rent, job training, vehicle repairs and all that. who could help them move into stable housing.

“It’s more than just closing an encampment,” Milam said. “It’s about making sure people have the opportunity to transition successfully.”

San Jose also applied for a grant, asking for $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 hope the money will help them try a new strategy that involves people more in finding their own homes, said Robert Ratner, county director of Housing for Health. They would give “housing grants” to residents of the encampment, then work with the residents to spend that money in the way that makes the most sense to them.

Governor Newsom has launched a new agency to oversee the state's homelessness efforts - the California Interagency Council on Homelessness, co-chaired by Ghaly and Business, Consumer Services and Housing Secretary Lourdes Castro Ramírez .

New state agency has power to hold cities accountable

The governor’s office is also conducting a “100 Day Challenge” this year focusing 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 road to housing. Santa Cruz County hopes to house 40 people and bring another 100 into the pipeline.

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

When asked if Newsom’s strategies to reduce homeless encampments would work, Jason Elliott, the governor’s senior adviser, said they already did.

In an unprecedented effort, Governor Newsom distributes $50 million to help cities and counties clear camps and house people living outside.

“We understand people are frustrated. But we’re also proud of the 58,000 people who have come off the streets since this pandemic hit,” he said, referring to Newsom’s Roomkey project, which moved homeless people into hotels, and Homekey, which created longer-term housing. “That’s how much worse it would have been.”

But the one-time grants go no further, Milam said. For years Richmond had been working on opening up a secure parking site for people living in RVs. After an intense reaction from some neighbors, the city finally . Milam says this is where the state must step in.

“We need state support. We are drowning,” Milam said. “The funding helps. We appreciate the funding very much. But there needs to be more at the political level to help us find 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 her city to give homeless people the help they need. Peña, who earns $18 an hour raising awareness for the nonprofit Safe, Organized Spaces three days a week, dreams of having her own house, opening a thrift store and regaining custody of her two son.

A state grant could greatly help him achieve these goals. But after many disappointments, Peña is not holding his 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 didn’t pull it off.”

Bernard P. Love