Senator Brian W. Jones
40th Senate District
California’s homeless crisis has plagued the state for years, and despite throwing a staggering amount of money trying to solve it, the problem is only getting worse.
In 2018, California had about 130,000 homeless individuals. Today, that number is over 170,000. That amounts to a more than 30% increase. During those same five years, Democrat lawmakers and the governor spent $20 billion trying – and failing – to address this crisis. If money isn’t a problem, what is?
Homeless people face harsh, dangerous and inhumane conditions living on the street. In 2021, 5,000 homeless people died on the streets in California. They are 16 times more likely to die suddenly than the general population, according to UC San Francisco. They are also more likely to be a victim of crime. San Diego County data shows that homeless people were 19 times more likely to be murdered and 12 times more likely to be assaulted compared to the housed population.
It’s important to remember the humanity aspect of the crisis. Those on the street are someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, daughter and son. They had a life before becoming homeless. Unfortunate circumstances – loss of employment, mental health, substance addiction, grief or something else – led them to this tragic situation.
Tents and deplorable conditions are becoming increasingly common throughout California. Encampments line nearly every block in some areas. Children are being exposed to open drug use and other dangerous criminal activity. Californians pay the highest cost of living in the continental U.S. – they should not have to jump over used drug needles in their parks or be afraid to walk down their street.
Clearly, the current approach is not working. It’s time to shift the focus from merely throwing money at the problem to implementing compassionate and effective policy changes that focus on accountability.
It’s not that financial resources are unimportant in tackling the homeless crisis, but it’s time to realize that the problem cannot be solved by money alone. Pouring billions into the issue without a well-thought strategy is like trying to douse a fire with a never-ending supply of gasoline.
In the long term, California needs to build more housing and mental health facilities and needs to train and educate more people to provide services at those facilities. Last year, when the state had a $100 billion surplus, California Senate Republicans proposed using 10% of it – $10 billion – to expand our mental health infrastructure. Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected by Democrat lawmakers.
Despite the deficit shift in budget health, I’m confident the state has funding for this infrastructure in our general fund budget, which is over $200 billion annually.
In the short term, we need to restore safety, sanitation and quality of life by compassionately clearing the encampments that have sprung up across the state. Many of the people within them are in obvious states of distress. Leaving them to live (and die) on the streets is inhumane, unhealthy and often dangerous – for both the people living in encampments and those in the neighborhoods around them.
What does “compassionately clearing encampments” mean? Our goal is not to criminalize homelessness but to lift them off the streets through an approach that connects them with desperately needed services.
We are already seeing local governments implement measures to do this. Recently, the San Diego City Council passed the Unsafe Camping Ordinance. The ordinance prohibits homeless encampments in all public spaces, including schools and parks, if shelter beds are available. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is exploring options to take the ordinance county-wide. Los Angeles and Sacramento also passed measures aimed at clearing these inhumane encampments.
It’s past time we implement a similar policy statewide. Tents are everywhere. No community is immune, and this crisis needs a statewide solution.
Last year, I introduced the bipartisan Senate Bill 31 to prohibit encampments near sensitive areas around schools, parks, libraries and daycare centers and connect impacted homeless people with treatment and services.
Unfortunately, the measure was shot down by liberal Democrat lawmakers on the Senate Public Safety Committee. Interestingly, these lawmakers did not vote against the measure, they simply refused to cast a vote at all, likely in fear of backlash for once again failing to tackle the homeless crisis.
I am not giving up and will continue to push for a statewide policy to compassionately clear these encampments.
As we explore new approaches to the homelessness crisis, it’s important to reflect on what failed in the past and why. Thanks to California Senate Republicans’ demands for accountability, we may finally get some answers to a big question: What happened to the billions of dollars spent on homelessness? This year, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee authorized an audit on homelessness spending with bipartisan support. We cannot keep repeating the same failed, expensive mistakes of the past.
I’m renewing my calls for Capitol Democrats to work in a bipartisan manner, act on homeless encampments and focus on the safety and wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our communities. The current statewide approach to homelessness is clearly failing and Californians are tired of it. It’s time for all elected officials to prioritize compassion and safety over political gamesmanship. We will not give up on the fight to protect our communities and compassionately clear encampments.
Both sides agree that we cannot allow the homelessness crisis in California to continue. The state must take a new approach to fix California. We can and we must do better.
State Sen. Brian W. Jones is the Senate Minority Leader and represents the 40th Senate District.