California nears plan to house its homeless

The growing problem of homelessness can be seen in every corner of California, from small towns that ring the state's redwood forests to the sands separating the Pacific Ocean from the most prosperous beachfront communities.

More than 115,000 homeless Californians were counted last year and one in four had a serious mental illness, according to the most recent tally from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With California's homeless situation at what some officials are calling a tipping point, lawmakers are putting the finishing touches on a plan to provide as much as $2 billion to help cities build permanent shelters to get mentally ill people off the streets. The Legislature could consider the measure later this week.

"There's just something immoral about a tent city being silhouetted by 16 cranes building high-rises -- the juxtaposition of haves and have-nots," former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Orinda, said at a recent Capitol hearing on the funding plan.

His reference was to Los Angeles' Skid Row, a 54-square-block area surrounded by an ever encroaching building boom featuring upscale lofts and apartments, high-rise hotels, expensive restaurants and trendy coffee bars and nightclubs.

With more than 46,000 homeless people scattered across Los Angeles County -- an increase of 6 percent from last year -- local officials are fighting an uphill battle for state and voter approval of an initiative that would raise taxes on millionaires to benefit homeless services.

Experts say things are just as bad across the rest of California. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the startup tech boom is sending rental and housing prices skyrocketing, people who lived in once-modest neighborhoods are being forced to the streets.

In Sacramento, people take refuge in bushes near the stately Capitol building or cluster in downtown encampments.

 "I don't care what part of California you're in, you will see an ever-growing population of people who live on the streets with a mental illness, and that's what we're addressing," said Maggie Merritt, executive director of the Steinberg Institute, a mental health nonprofit advocating for increased state funding to fight homelessness.

 Hawaii and some major cities including Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have declared homelessness to be in states of emergency, freeing up disaster funds and breaking down regulatory barriers to provide swift assistance.

 California Gov. Jerry Brown has resisted that approach. His spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in a statement last week that local governments are best-positioned to tackle the issue and "a gubernatorial declaration is not appropriate."

 Brown favors the legislative plan proposed by Senate Democrats that would provide up to $2 billion for local agencies to construct permanent housing for people living on the streets with psychological disorders. Legislative analysts expect it'd fund at least 14,000 units.

The money would come largely from the Mental Health Services Act, an initiative voters approved in 2004 that raised state income taxes on millionaires by 1 percent. The current plan would use bonds to finance construction and divert a small portion -- between 0.8 percent and 6.5 percent -- of the mental health fund every year for what could be decades to repay the bonds.

Many of the details remain to be worked out, but a keystone of the tentative agreement requires counties to step up with additional services for everyone they house.

Such services currently vary widely between counties, and some officials are wary of a 20-year treatment obligation tied to the money. But negotiations have consistently favored county input, allaying most hesitations to accept the state aid.

While rehabilitating the homeless for long-term success requires more than just putting a roof over their heads, that is the initial step in what has become a national "housing first" strategy.

"The capital is great, you build the building, but then you have all these vulnerable people you're housing who need all those other supportive services," said Jeremy Sidell, chief development officer at People Assisting the Homeless, a nonprofit that's been transitioning people from streets to housing since 1985. "You want to maintain them in that housing; you don't want to create a revolving door."

He said nonprofits that work with the homeless employ caseworkers to treat substance abuse, manage mental health and offer a stable environment to close that revolving door.

"We'll take people to the Social Security office, we'll take people to the DMV or their doctor's appointments," Sidell said. "It's a do-whatever-it-takes approach."