Roberts: Addressing homelessness is not a political winner
Gov. Gavin Newsom visits Santa Clara County in April to announce nearly 11,000 hotel rooms have been secured for homeless residents. Photo courtesy of Supervisor Susan Ellenberg's office.

A recent UC Berkeley poll asked voters to rate Governor Gavin Newsom’s performance. More than half (55%) said he was doing a poor or very poor job on homelessness, and only 11% gave him good or excellent marks.

For almost 25 years, I have been leading a homeless services and housing development agency that operates in 140 California cities. I have seen five governors take over the reins of state government. Some of these leaders funded programs and promoted bonds to address homelessness, and some barely made an effort to even talk about it.

With our current governor, I have been pleasantly surprised by his efforts to tackle this tragic human problem that is occurring on so many California streets.

In January, during pre-dawn hours and before COVID-19 was a scary household term, our homeless service workers walked the streets of San Diego with the governor and State Senate President Pro-Tempore Toni Atkins, counting people who were homeless, as part of the national point-in-time count. They saw him crouch down numerous times to talk with people struggling to find a place to live. The governor was conveying his concern for the most vulnerable of Californians.

A month later, the governor devoted a majority of his State of the State speech highlighting the need to address California’s homeless crisis, unlike traditional state speeches that would list a long litany of priorities with emphasis on none.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

Among those of us who advocate for people who are homeless, especially those who are older with weak immune systems and living on the streets, we worried that this virus would, frankly, kill them.

With all of the concern and talk about homelessness the governor had just imparted the previous two months, some of us were still worried that his response would not match his talk.

But his Project Roomkey initiative quieted critics. It was actually quite strategic — take the federal dollars to address the COVID-19 crisis, spend it on renting out California hotels/motels since no one was traveling and house the unhoused.

It would keep these owners in business and fill the rooms with vulnerable people living on the streets. In other words, rent out 15,000 hotel rooms for people who are homeless.

And then continue this initiative by making the program permanent with a Project Homekey initiative that buys these hotels/motels to be converted to permanent homes for homeless people.

And yet with all of this effort, the governor’s poll numbers on homelessness are dismal.

This is a perfect example of why in the past many elected leaders stayed clear from even talking about homelessness, let alone proposing expensive initiatives to address it.

For decades now, we have seen more people living in tents and under tarps along our sidewalks. The homeless plans and initiatives have come and gone. Most residents and businesses blame homelessness on their elected leaders, as if they should magically come up with billions of taxpayers’ dollars to fund enough housing and programs that would eliminate all of the state’s homelessness.

But we know that homelessness is a result of decades of failed policies that did not seriously address poverty — housing unaffordability, racial inequity, insufficient wages and food insecurity — which are just the tip of the poverty iceberg.

So how can an elected leader fix a decades-old problem in one or two terms?

The only approach is through incremental initiatives that help thousands of people get off the streets now, even though it won’t end homelessness overnight. Spend money now, even though the overall problem will not be solved until years after an elected official’s term ends.

This means true political leadership. It is doing the right thing now regardless if a politician gets credit for it later. Courageous political leadership means implementing programs and housing for people who are homeless now, notwithstanding that voters may think it is insufficient because they still see those homeless tents outside of their businesses and residents.

If more strategic ideas to house California’s homeless population continue to come out of the governor’s office, perhaps his good/excellent ratings will increase far more than 11 percent.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. He also is a board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home.

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