Rising homelessness is tearing California cities apart

Steinberg is one of many California Democrats who have long focused efforts to reduce homelessness on services and shelters, but now find themselves backing more punitive measures as the issue impinges on public feelings of peace and of security. That’s a stark change for a state where 113,000 people sleep outdoors each night, according to the latest statewide analysis released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2020. The relatively California’s mild allows for year-round outdoor living, and more than half of the country’s homeless homeless live here.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that the state has cleared 1,200 encampments over the past year, attempting to soften the message with a series of visits to social service programs. But without enough beds to house the homeless, advocates say efforts to clear encampments are nothing more than cosmetic political stunts that essentially shift the problem from corner to corner.

Steinberg, a liberal Democrat who resisted forcibly deporting people until more shelters could come online, for more than 20 years championed mental health and addictions programs as ways to get people out from the street. But those programs have been largely unable to keep up with the growing number of homeless people in cities like Sacramento, where local leaders are now besieged by angry citizens demanding change.

He and many of his fellow Democratic mayors in the state are not indifferent to their cause. San Diego penalized people refusing shelter. Oakland has increased its rate of camp closures as the pandemic receded. San Jose is scrambling to remove dozens of people from an area near the airport or risk losing federal funding.

“Nobody’s happy to have to do this,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said earlier this summer as he discussed ticketing people who refuse to take shelter. “We do everything we can to give people better choices than the streets.”

Other Democratic leaders across the country, facing similar pressure, have also moved to clear encampments and evict the homeless from public spaces. New York Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain who won his job by pledging to fight crime, has come under fire this year for removing the homeless from subways and transit centers. The city’s shelter system is now packed.

In California, where the percentage of people living day-to-day on the streets is far higher than in New York, the shortage of shelter beds has caused friction and embroiled local and state officials in legal challenges.

A recent court ruling requires local governments to provide enough beds before clearing encampments – a mandate that does not apply to state property. But that’s easier said than done in a state where there are three to four times as many homeless people as there are shelter beds.

California’s homelessness problem has deep and knotty roots going back decades, but it has become increasingly pronounced in recent years. Tents and tarps on sidewalks, in parks and under highways have become an almost ubiquitous symbol of the state’s continuing crisis. A pandemic-spurred project to move people from encampments to motels has expired and moratoriums on evictions have been dissolved. Homelessness is a major concern for voters in the liberal state, and as Democrats prepare for the midterm elections, Newsom and other leaders are eager to show voters they are taking action.

But the practice of clearing camps can be an exercise in futility, especially when people forced to pack up have nowhere to go or just end up doing the same thing a few blocks away.

Bernard P. Love