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Newsom touts response to homelessness in State of the State. Here’s context for his claims.

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Andrew Nixon
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CapRadio
Gov. Gavin Newsom gives his annual State of the State address on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Gov. Gavin Newsom claimed during his State of the State address on Tuesday that his administration has confronted California’s homelessness crisis and made significant progress.

Local government officials and community advocates have praised Newsom for making homelessness a top state priority. But they also say more progress is needed to help the tens of thousands of Californians living without a permanent home.

PolitiFact California examined Newsom’s claims and added important context.

Newsom’s claim: The homelessnesss crisis “has worsened over the last decade, not only here in California, but across the nation.”

There’s no argument about California’s worsening problem, but the second part of Newsom’s statement about the rest of the nation needs some explaining. The most recent federal count from January 2020 found California had 161,000 homeless people. That was a 7% increase from the year before and was by far the largest total in the nation.

Results of this year’s homelessness count will be released this spring. They are widely expected to show the state’s unhoused population has again increased. Researchers say the pandemic and California’s continued lack of affordable housing are likely driving those numbers up.

Looking at data from 2007 through 2020, the state’s homeless population increased 16%, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Newsom is correct that homelessness has gotten worse in other parts of the country, as well, during that time. Massachusetts, Washington D.C. and New York have also struggled with rising numbers.

But that’s not the story in all states. Florida, Texas, Georgia, New Jersey and Illinois all reduced their homeless populations by one-third or more over the past decade, according to the federal data.

Newsom’s claim: “And while we moved a record 58,000 people off the streets since the beginning of the pandemic, we recognize we have more to do.”

The governor was referring to projects Roomkey and Homekey, both initiated by his administration during the pandemic. Roomkey has sheltered approximately 50,000 of California’s older and medically-vulnerable homeless residents in hotels and motels during the worst of the pandemic, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Homekey, a longer-term homeless housing initiative, has housed about 8,000 people in hotels and motels that were purchased by cities and counties and refurbished to add kitchenettes.

So while Newsom claimed 58,000 people were moved off the streets, that doesn’t mean everyone went to long-term housing. In fact, tens of thousands of those unhouse people still don’t have permanent homes.

State data show a majority of Roomkey participants have gone on to either housing or shelter. That includes 22% who were connected with permanent housing and 35% who went on to temporary housing or congregate shelter.

Another 18% went to unknown destinations and 10% to institutions including jails or medical centers. The remaining 15% went back to unsheltered homelessness, the figures show.

“Our goal is to always connect people with permanent housing. We’re not always successful,” Jason Elliott, Newsom’s top advisor on homelessness, told CapRadio after the speech. “Sometimes people return to the streets, sometimes they return to congregate shelters. But we’re very proud of the rehousing rates.”

An estimated 7,500 people still live at Roomkey motel and hotel rooms across the state. Counties from San Diego to Sacramento have begun phasing out the program this winter, citing its high cost and the end of state and federal funds to pay for it.

Newsom’s claim: “We recognize we have more to do — particularly to address what’s happening on our sidewalks reaching people who need help the most. Those with schizophrenia spectrum, and psychosis disorders many self-medicating with drugs or alcohol addictions. That’s precisely what our encampment resolution grants, and our new CARE Court, seek to address.”

The governor’s plan would authorize civil court judges to order people with severe mental illness or a substance use disorder into treatment programs for up to a year. Family members, first responders or homeless service providers could refer people to be considered for treatment.

Newsom’s proposal has already provoked debate. Some community advocates say it could violate civil rights and criminalize homelessnesss. Meanwhile, the plan has the support of a group of big city mayors from Sacramento to San Diego.

In a roundtable meeting last week, the mayors said the CARE Courts have the potential to repair what they called California’s broken mental health system. Several said the system currently sends homeless people with mental illnesses to psychiatric centers and then back out onto the streets within days, noting no government agency is required to address their long-term needs.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the status quo needs to change.

“Why when it comes to providing treatment for people living in squalor on our streets is it a voluntary and optional act of government? I don’t get it,” he said.

Newsom’s advisors say while it would affect many people living on the streets, those with shelter could also be referred for treatment.

The CARE Court program would have to be approved by the Legislature. Newsom is asking lawmakers to include it in the state budget, which would allow it to take effect as soon as July.