Maybe it was because of the constant harping by Republican candidates to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the upcoming recall election. Or maybe he would have done it anyway.
But Newsom and the state government he heads are at long last moving to relieve one of the major causes of the homelessness that plagues almost all parts of California.
People who canvass the homeless camps each year to get as accurate a count as possible have long reported that mental illness is one of the problem’s most important causes.
Some semi-official estimates place the mentally ill component of the homeless at about 20%. Others have it as high as 40%.
This is not a new phenomenon: Since the capacity of many state mental hospitals was reduced or eliminated by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in the early 1970s, the mentally ill often have had nowhere to live but in tents, cardboard boxes or (for the lucky among them) covered pickup trucks or aged motor homes.
What is new is that state government is about to throw significant money at mental health. Sure, it’s a relatively minor part of Newsom’s $100 billion big-spending pandemic recovery plan, also designed to help him fend off the ongoing campaign to recall him.
But it’s still a total of about $6 billion, nearly half what Newsom proposes to spend on building new apartments and buying hotels and motels to create up to 46,000 homeless living units — if the targets are willing to participate. Half that housing will come with counseling services, too. It remains to be seen how many takers those programs will have.
Meanwhile, if money can help solve problems, perhaps there will be a dent in the huge mental illness difficulties that have plagued marginal Californians for decades.
Newsom’s plan includes $2.45 billion for new or renewed capacity in the public mental health system, some of which was diverted long ago to other uses, including a Cal State campus.
It also includes $4 billion for behavioral health services for children and youth. Plus $950 million for school-based programs and $430 million for expansion of early psychosis treatment and youth drop-in wellness centers.
Whatever its motivation, this is in part a response to a February Kaiser Family Foundation poll reporting 40% of American adults say they suffer from anxiety or depressive disorders, four times as many as reported before the pandemic.
That makes the expanded mental health spending a response to COVID-19 and its accompanying isolated lifestyles in addition to homelessness.
If there’s follow-through, this level of new spending and activity can’t help but reduce a serious cause of problems that send many previously solid citizens into street living.
As might be expected, mental health officials and therapists at all levels appear thrilled at the new emphasis on their efforts.
“(This) budget proposal shows our state understands how critical it is for us to invest in behavioral health in order for California to fully recover from the…past year and be prepared to meet the ongoing surge of need for mental health…services,” said Veronica Kelley, president of the statewide County Behavioral Health Directors Assn. and director of San Bernardino County’s mental health department.
“Counties will be able to build brick-and-mortar capacity, combined with workforce investment, to address systemic gaps left by decades of underinvestment.”
Before Newsom began traveling the state in mid-May to publicize his recovery plan (also campaigning to keep his job), no one expected anything close to this level of investment in mental health.
By itself, it will not end homelessness, because mental illness is only one cause, along with things like the lack of jobs for newly released convicts, the fact that some other states offer convicted “minor” criminals bus tickets here in lieu of jail time and economic conditions that can drive people from homes they can no longer afford.
But if at least some of the current homeless or newly housed are willing to take advantage of the new resources coming their way, there’s a chance the money can reduce this seemingly intractable problem.
And if a recall is what it takes to motivate politicians to attack problems at their sources, maybe we should have them regularly.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].