PD Editorial: Yes on Prop 2: Build housing for the mentally ill homeless

Proposition 2 on the Nov. 6 ballot stands at the crossroads of two of California' most intractable social issues: mental illness and homelessness.

An estimated one in four homeless Americans suffers from a severe form of mental illness, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

That's fourfold higher than the population as a whole.

Here in Sonoma County, the disparity may be even greater. In a February survey of the homeless population, 35 percent said they were suffering from emotional or psychiatric conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

These men, women and, yes, children can be easy targets for predators. It's also not uncommon for them to end up in the emergency room and even jail, putting a burden on first responders and straining public resources.

Proposition 2 would make $2 billion available to move homeless people suffering mental illnesses off the street and into housing, where they would have better access to care and other supportive services.

This isn't a tax increase or a new tax, and approval shouldn't adversely affect existing mental health programs.

How is that possible?

California already has a source of revenue earmarked exclusively for mental health programs: a 1 percent tax on personal income of more than $1 million a year, approved by voters in 2004 as Proposition 63.

The tax generates between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion a year, and about $2.5 billion went unspent through 2015-16.

In 2016, as part of the state budget, lawmakers authorized a $2 billion bond sale to build and rehabilitate supportive housing for homeless people suffering mental illnesses.

The money would be distributed to counties, primarily through competitive grants.

Money to pay off the bonds - about $120 million a year - would come from Proposition 63 revenue.

Many jurisdictions, including Sonoma County, have adopted a “housing first” approach, seeking to arrange permanent homes and then connecting homeless people with mental health care, job training or other services needed to keep them safely housed. But the state's chronic housing shortage, including a lack of supportive housing for the mentally ill, is a huge obstacle.

The bond program was offered as a remedy. It passed the Legislature with bipartisan support and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

But it has been stalled ever since by a legal challenge from a Sacramento attorney, who contends it's an unauthorized use of Proposition 63 funds.

Moreover, attorney Mary Ann Bernard argues, the state constitution requires voter approval of bonds that will be repaid from income taxes and other general tax revenue.

The state attorney general's office took the same position on a 2006 proposal to build housing with Proposition 63 funds. “We conclude that strong arguments would support a finding by a court that the securitization of funding from Proposition 63 to issue housing bonds for mentally ill homeless individuals is inconsistent with the intent of Proposition 63 and that any state contract to secure these bonds would create an unconstitutional debt,” the letter said.

The 2006 plan was abandoned, and Bernard's lawsuit has yet to be decided.

Rather than wait for a ruling that could go against them, backers of the housing program, dubbed No Place Like Home, want voters to authorize the use of Proposition 63 money to retire bond debt.

A housing-first approach to homeless has proven effective, but it can only work if housing is available. Proposition 2 would help provide badly needed refuge for the mentally ill homeless, and The Press Democrat recommends a “yes” vote.

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