California will spend about $30 million to build 1,200 small homes across the state this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday, part of a plan to help house the nation's largest homeless population and to address an issue that has persistently plagued the state during the governor's time in office.
The homes, some as small as 120 square feet, can be assembled in 90 minutes and cost a fraction of what it takes to build permanent housing. Newsom said the homes can create space to help clear homeless encampments that have sprung up across the state's major cities. Federal courts have ruled cities can't clear homeless encampments if there are no shelter beds available.
"We need to focus more energy and precision on addressing encampments," Newsom said. "There's no humanity there. People are dying on our watch."
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Newsom announced the plans in Sacramento on the first stop of a planned four-city tour, where he has promised to make major policy announcements on housing, health care and public safety. The tour is replacing the governor's traditional State of the State address.
Local leaders across the country have used small homes for years to help house their homeless populations. In San Jose, a city of nearly 1 million people at the south end of the San Francisco Bay, Mayor Matt Mahan said the city has installed 500 small homes in the past three years. The rate of the city's homeless people who were unsheltered dropped to 75% from 84%, the first decline in many years, he said.
"If you look around the world at places that have gotten a handle on this challenge, it's because they've scaled up safe places for people to go," he said.
But critics said Newsom is spending more money on things that won't do enough to help. Since taking office in 2019, Newsom has signed off on more than $22.3 billion in new spending on housing and homelessness programs. California's homeless population has increased 6% since 2020, compared to a 0.4% increase in the rest of the country, according to an an analysis of federal data by the Public Policy Institute of California.
California now has nearly a third of all homeless people in the United States.
"This is just another Band-Aid on a crisis that is out of control in California," said Brian Jones, the Republican leader of the state Senate. "We know that throwing money at this problem doesn’t work."
Sacramento will get 350 of the homes. Los Angeles will get 500, San Jose will get 200 and San Diego will get 150. While the state is paying to build and install the homes, local governments will be in charge of maintaining them. That includes deciding where to put them. The homes will have electricity, but they won't have plumbing, water or cooking appliances, according to the Governor's Office.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, called Newsom's proposal a "modest step forward." He estimated the homes in Sacramento would be enough to house about 10% of the city's homeless population.
"I wish that elected officials, not only the governor but up and down the state, would have a broader perspective in terms of trying to approach our homeless crisis and affordable housing crisis with a sense of scale rather than a 10% solution," he said.
Newsom acknowledged that criticism on Thursday, saying he knows progress is not happening fast enough. He said small homes are not the solution, but they can help.
"It's not just about sweeping things under the rug or kicking people off the streets and sidewalks and claiming a job well done," Newsom said. "That doesn't do justice."
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California's homelessness problem is in part a byproduct of its shortage of affordable housing, an issue that advocates say impacts many more people than simply those living on the streets.
Nathen Avelar, 18, said he has struggled with unstable housing most of his life. Avelar grew up with his mother and twin brother in the Central Valley city of Merced, where he said there is plenty of new housing but all out of their reach.
For a few years, they lived in a home that was infested with mold, which aggravated his brother’s asthma and forced them to leave. They moved in with his grandmother; if not for her home, which they often shared with multiple other family members, Avelar said they likely would have been homeless.
"I remember a couple of times we drove around looking for houses, and we always saw these nice houses on the street and I knew we would never be able to afford them," he said. "That was really disheartening."
Avelar, who worked part-time for a voter engagement group that supported Newsom during an unsuccessful 2021 recall attempt, said he wants the governor’s administration to build more affordable housing.
Leaders of the state's biggest cities and counties want Sacramento to define more clearly their role in addressing homelessness and how the state will measure the success of local programs that receive state funding.
Currently state homelessness funding has "all sorts of rules that have to be put in and half a dozen different state departments involved in order to find one program," said Graham Knauss, executive director of the California State Association of Counties. "That needs to change. That is not government at its best."
The association's solution is to ask the state Legislature to pass laws clearly defining the responsibilities of local and state government, coupled with recurring state funding for local governments every year. Knauss said the association is talking with lawmakers and the governor's office about passing legislation.
"We certainly should not expect that we’re going to get ongoing progress on homelessness while using one-time funding to do it," he said.