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California is at a tipping point—and liberal pols are left to scramble

California has spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion to address the crisis of people living in tents and ramshackle structures on sidewalks, streets, freeway embankments, public plazas, pedestrian bridges, bicycle paths, parks, parking lots and beaches.

The problem is worse than ever, and it’s clear that voters are furious. That shows up in polling, but it can be seen even more plainly in the shifty maneuverings of the state’s leading “progressive” politicians.

Take London Breed. The mayor of San Francisco is facing a tough battle for re-election next year, and with California’s primary moved from June to March, next year is getting here faster than usual. All registered voters will receive their ballot in the mail in early February.

Last week, Daniel Lurie, an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, announced that he will run against Breed for mayor on a promise to increase the size of San Francisco’s police force and crack down on open air drug markets. The same morning, Breed suddenly proposed cutting off county-funded welfare payments to addicts who refuse to seek treatment. “No more handouts without accountability,” she asserted.

There’s less there than meets the eye. The executive director of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency, Trent Rohrer, explained that under the mayor’s plan, no one on welfare would be tested for drugs unless they self-disclosed an addiction or seemed high during an evaluation. Rohrer said no one would be required to stop using drugs. As long as they sign up for a treatment program they can use drugs and keep collecting checks from the county.

If Breed was serious about wanting to encourage people to get treatment for addiction, she’d call for the repeal of Senate Bill 1380, a 2016 law authored by now-LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell.

SB 1380 locked state housing programs into the “Housing First” model, under which “participation in services or program compliance is not a condition of housing tenancy.” In fact, Housing First has as one of its core components a “harm-reduction philosophy that recognizes drug and alcohol use and addiction are a part of tenants’ lives.”

While California politicians are failing upward, the fentanyl crisis has claimed nearly 6,000 lives between 2021 and 2022 — despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration spending more than $1 billion to combat drug use. San Francisco is currently seeing about 70 overdose deaths per month.

The “Housing First” law could sabotage a project that Newsom has planned to be his “legacy” in California. The governor wants voters to approve $6.38 billion in debt to pay for 10,000 mental health beds and supportive apartment units.

When he first proposed the idea back in March at an appearance in San Diego, Newsom described it as “campus-style” housing with services. He said it would be a $3 billion to $5 billion bond to build residential facilities with 12,000 beds.

Now it’s $6.38 billion for 10,000 beds.

But cost isn’t the only problem with this plan. The beds are in the category of “housing,” which means the people in them could still be using drugs, exactly as described in the “Housing First” law. Treatment programs and other services would be optional. The only thing that’s not optional is the bill for this debacle that taxpayers will be forced to pay.

If Newsom was serious about providing mental health beds, he would ask the federal government for a waiver from the “IMD exclusion” that has been on the books since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare and Medicaid Act in 1965.

At the time, experts believed the future of mental health care was to be found on a prescription pad in a community clinic, not in a large “Institution of Mental Disease.” So the law banned federal reimbursement of mental health care provided in an institution with more than 16 beds.

During the Trump administration, the US Department of Health and Human Services set a new policy that allowed states to apply for a waiver from the IMD exclusion. If Gov. Newsom asked for a waiver, California could spend its billions of borrowed dollars building high-quality large hospitals so that there would be enough beds to appropriately care for people who should be patients, not tenants.

There’s one more thing that California could do to address homelessness and street encampments, and that’s to spend money constructing decent, well-run shelters. Under the Ninth Circuit’s 2018 ruling in Martin v. Boise, a local government may only enforce an anti-camping ordinance if it can provide a shelter bed for everyone who needs one. Nowhere in the decision did the court say enforcement must wait for the construction of studio apartments with wrap-around services. But California politicians, under pressure from activists, have declined to build shelters, preferring to build “supportive housing” units costing as much as $800,000 each. Meanwhile, the encampments grow.

Now that Newsom wants voters to approve his mega-bond for mental health beds, he is changing his tune. He has signed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the US Supreme Court to hear a case from Oregon that could overturn Martin v. Boise and broadly allow cities to clear encampments. “Business owners and residents near encampments are confronted by trash, used needles, and human waste, and increased instances of open drug use, property damage, theft and break-ins,” Newsom’s attorneys argued.

Suddenly, Breed and Newsom sound like pro-business, law-and-order politicians.

Never doubt the power of a Super Tuesday primary.

Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group and VP of Communications for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.