LOS ANGELES - Gov. Gavin Newsom picked up litter and painted over graffiti in Los Angeles on Wednesday to highlight California’s $1.1 billion initiative to clean areas near highways, roads and other public spaces, an effort he promised to expand next year to address homeless encampments.
Before collecting syringes and broken electronics along a downtown freeway, Newsom returned to the nearby lot where he announced the Clean California plan last May. Previously piled with trash, it's now a manicured park with benches, palm trees and a vegetable garden.
The California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, is spearheading cleanups at similar sites statewide where Newsom said 4,200 tons (3,810 metric tons) of trash has been collected since the program was launched.
At-risk youth and people who were formerly homeless or incarcerated have been given priority for the jobs created by the three-year initiative. Some 11,000 people have already been hired and many of them are working in neighborhoods where they live, which restores a "sense of community," the governor said.
"Because once people feel connected to something, once they feel ownership to something, they are more apt to protect it, to preserve it," he said.
The cleanup comes amid growing frustration with homeless encampments that have sprouted under highway overpasses and near freeway exit and entry ramps throughout California in the past few years. The encampments have grown during the coronavirus pandemic, and many are crammed with discarded sofas, mattresses and other trash.
The Clean California program funds are not allowed to be used to displace unhoused people. The state has separately allocated about $50 million in grant funds to help communities humanely clear encampments and get unhoused residents into permanent supportive housing. On Wednesday Newsom said his budget proposal expected in January will expand those grants significantly, though he didn't offer a number.
"That $50 million is a down payment on what the state’s going to be doing in the upcoming year to significantly increase our efforts on resolution grants to address the issues of the encampments," Newsom said.
The Democratic governor, who survived a recall election this year, pointed out that he has proposed $12 billion to get more people experiencing homelessness off the streets and into homes of their own.
An estimated 161,000 people are experiencing homelessness in the nation’s most populous state, more than in any other. Advocates say they can’t house people quickly enough with a shortage of housing units and high rents.
The Clean California plan is a partnership with cities and counties, which are receiving one-third of the money, about $300 million, in grants. Newsom said Wednesday that his January budget proposal would include at least $100 million in additional grants for community-based projects to remove garbage and beautify public spaces.
The governor said a few years ago the entire annual Caltrans budget for removing litter along roadways was $110 million.
Newsom first announced a $1.5 billion Clean California initiative in May, but the Legislature decreased the funding to $1.1 billion in the final budget the governor signed a month later.