California cities could face lawsuits over homelessness, Gov. Newsom's task force says
Declaring that moral persuasion and economic incentives aren't working to bring people in from the sidewalks, Gov. Gavin Newsom's task force on homelessness called Monday for a “legally enforceable mandate” that would force municipalities and the state to house the growing number of homeless Californians.
The proposal, which came as Newsom kicked off a weeklong tour of the state aimed at drawing attention to the homelessness crisis, urged the Legislature to put a measure on the November ballot that would force California cities and counties to take steps to provide housing for the more than 150,000 Californians who lack it, or face legal action.
Such a measure would require a two-thirds vote of both legislative houses to be brought to voters. California law does not now penalize the state or local governments for failing to reduce their homeless populations, or to make housing sufficiently available to people without it.
But Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who co-chair the governor's 13-member Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, have been advocating some sort of enforceable “right” to sleep indoors since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down laws against homeless camping. That ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court let stand just last month, dramatically limited cities' enforcement options, finding it to be cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping on the street if sufficient shelter isn't available.
“California mandates free public education for all of its children and subsidized health insurance for its low-income residents. It requires its subdivisions to provide services to people with developmental disabilities and foster children,” the commission wrote in a letter signed by both elected officials.
“Yet everything that state, county and city governments do to alleviate this crisis is voluntary. There is no mandate to ensure people can live indoors, no legal accountability for failing to do so, no enforceable housing production standard and no requirement to consolidate and coordinate funding streams across jurisdictions. The results speak for themselves.”
The council's recommendation stops short of Steinberg's and Ridley-Thomas' initial call for a “right to shelter,” which would not only have required cities to provide immediate beds, but also obligated people experiencing homelessness to come inside. But it adds momentum to the strategy of elevating litigation as a tool to accomplish what compassion and money haven't been able to do.
Newsom, visiting a homelessness program in Nevada County, said Monday he “would lean in the direction” of speedily deploying a legal “obligation” to supply sufficient services and housing, adding that “a number of cities and counties” have volunteered to do demonstration projects over the next several months, “not the next few years.” (Ridley-Thomas later said he would propose such a pilot in L.A. County this week.)
“I broadly have been encouraging this debate about obligations,” the governor said, adding that “there's a distinction between rights and obligations.”
Without elaborating on that distinction, he seconded the task force's point that many of the state's responsibilities stem from legal mandates: “We do it in almost every other respect,” Newsom said. “On this issue we don't and I think that's missing. The question is how do you do it…. This is not black and white. This is tough stuff.”
Municipalities made it clear they would need more clarification.
“A legally enforceable mandate can only work with clarity of who's obligated to do what and what new sustainable resources will fund it; that's the ticket for clear expectations and accountability,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, in a statement.
Steinberg, meanwhile, called Monday's proposal an improvement on the original “right to shelter” concept, saying a mandate by any name would still have the force of law. The point, the mayor said, is to give the courts a legal “last resort” to address pleas to supersede political gridlock, just as federal laws have in the past armed judges to combat other social crises. “It's analogous to desegregation,” Steinberg said.
The task force's proposal would let a “designated public official” sue the government for not doing enough to offer emergency and permanent housing to the homeless. A judge could then intervene to force a city to approve an emergency shelter, for example, or redirect budget funds to homelessness services.