Bramson: The problem with state withholdings when our pockets are empty
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is pictured in San Jose in this file photo.

    Imagine waking up to the smell of smoke and looking out the window only to see a fire in your backyard.

    Once you get out of the house safely with your loved ones, you’re probably going to call the fire department for help putting out the inferno. But what if when the brave firefighters showed up, the only tool they had at their disposal was a squirt gun. And to make matters worse, they just got a notice from the chief that there would be no more water until they put out 50% more fires.

    Sounds crazy, right? But this is pretty much exactly what unfolded between the state and cities and counties across California on Nov. 3. Fed up with what he perceived as a lack of urgency from local governments around the issue of ending and preventing homelessness, Gov. Newsom made the aggressive decision to withhold $1 billion in Homelessness Housing, Assistance and Prevention (HHAP) grants.

    He didn’t like hearing that some cities predicted homelessness would go up in the years ahead, while others could only forecast a modest decrease by 2024. He said it was unacceptable and that we needed to do better.  To his credit, the governor pointed out that we’re all in this together, and that everyone, including the state, needs to do their part. But then he followed that message up by cutting off one of the few sources the state provides locally to address the issue. It just doesn’t add up.

    Making matters worse is that the source of all this outrage came from a formula in HHAP grant application that showed local plans only attempting to achieve a 2% decrease in homelessness statewide. When you get into the particulars of that equation, you can see that it doesn’t really offer good insight to the full scope of the work being done at the local level, nor is it a reliable predictor of anything yet to come.

    So, as I’ve talked about before, the timing of this release near the elections and the content of the complaint really make this feel like bad political theater.

    While the governor has actually made more investments into homelessness and affordable housing than any other administration before in California, the state is a relatively new player and voice in this space. It’s not surprising that it is disconnected from ongoing efforts of local governments and it’s even easier to understand some of the frustration about why the new funding isn’t having a more immediate impact.

    But this crisis is decades in the making, with disinvestment in the most vulnerable people, a broken safety net, and not nearly enough of the deeply affordable housing we so desperately need. And people are being pushed into homelessness everyday because we just don’t have the resources needed to fix the system. While $1 billion sounds like quite a bit of money, it doesn’t do much when there are over 160,000 Californians on the street today.

    The truth is that thanks to the heroic efforts of many local nonprofit and government partners, we’re seeing some real progress here in Santa Clara County, getting thousands of folks off the streets and into permanent housing while preventing homelessness for thousands more.

    But we can’t keep fighting this fire with an empty squirt gun. The state — and  federal government, for that matter — needs to turn on the water all the way and keep it flowing so we can do what needs to happen to finally extinguish this long- burning blaze.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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