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Golis: When Californians lose faith in their government

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There’s nothing easy about being in government these days. There is no all-purpose remedy when hundreds of troubled people choose to camp on a public space. There is no off-the-shelf solution when fires destroy 5,300 homes on a single night, no quick fix when trying to overcome 40 years of anti-housing policies.

Still, Californians wish there was a stronger connection between what state and local leaders promise and what they deliver.

Whether it’s people living in squalid camps that threaten nearby neighborhoods or families sheltered in cars because they can’t afford to rent an apartment, government needs to do better.

And now would be the time to begin.

Four years ago, the Santa Rosa City Council declared a homeless emergency, ostensibly signaling that solutions were on the way. Reading last week about the rats infesting the homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, we now know that not much has changed.

Five years ago, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors promised new housing on the former Sutter Hospital site, housing that would respond to “a dire housing crisis.” But not even the 2017 fires that destroyed 5,300 homes could advance the project, which fell victim to neighborhood opposition and a series of miscalculations by the board. Five years later, the Sutter Hospital site remains a testimony to good intentions that went nowhere.

As a candidate for governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom pledged to respond to the state’s housing crisis by building 3.5 million new homes by 2025. In his first year in office, the number of home building permits issued in California declined.

Newsom also pledged to appoint a czar to expedite efforts to find shelter for the tens of thousands of people living on the streets. After becoming governor, he changed his mind.

Responding to a crisis that has drawn nationwide notice, Newsom last week asked the Legislature to appropriate an additional $1.4 billion for homeless shelters and other services — a proposal that became an acknowledgement that previous efforts had proved inadequate. If approved, money in the new state budget would come available in July. (Three years ago, Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond to build new shelters; the first new shelter finally opened last week.)

In the state Legislature, San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Weiner has made multiple attempts to pass legislation that would reduce barriers to higher-density housing near public transit, and last week he served up his latest attempt, which allows cities two years to develop their own plans. Within a month, the state Senate must decide whether the bill will move forward or be shelved for another year.

For most, life goes on. Politicians have taught us not expect too much. It’s so complicated, they say.

The problem is, there is work to do.

We really do have a housing crisis that requires government to stop being an obstacle to new housing.

We really do have people camped out in squalid conditions. After reading about the rats and a propane tank explosion at the encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, people are left to worry about what happens next.

We are told in one week that a replacement camp might be established at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Then a week later, we are told the camp might be located at a site near the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport. (When it was revealed that the airport site contains unexploded ordnance, the search turned weird. Or maybe sad.) We are told other possible sites might be disclosed this week.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that people think a homeless camp would be OK, so long as it’s not near where they live and work.

For all its imperfections, California remains that place where climate, geography, tolerance and innovation combine in ways unique in all the world. Also, it’s the fifth-largest economy on Earth.

But too many working people can’t afford a place to live, and too many people are camped out on the streets.

So we need to do better — and we have the resources to do better if we can find the political will.

For us, holiday visitors from the East Coast provided an outsiders’ perspective. And guess what? They thought California was pretty great.

From our visitors, we were reminded that we take a lot for granted — mild climate, lively cities, world-class food and wine, spectacular scenery. You can’t walk on a beach, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, enjoy the views from an oak-studded hill or visit redwood forests and vineyard valleys without knowing that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

We live in the great state of California — which could be even greater if the people we elect understood that talking about a problem is not the same as doing something about it.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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