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Elias: Can Prop 1 really fix homelessness?

The possible passage of Proposition 1 raises one very basic question: Could it help solve homelessness or merely be another financial boondoggle helping a few but leaving the crisis in the streets essentially unsolved?

First, there is no doubt this measure can help some of California’s approximately 180,000 unhoused. Its $6.4 billion cost will provide more than 11,000 new treatment beds for people with serious mental and emotional problems, reinforce the treatment they can already get in some counties through the relatively new and unproven Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) court system and possibly reduce some of the homelessness now so visible on streets and parks all around California.

But some informed estimates held during this winter’s campaign that it could not solve more than 2% of the problem.

Which raises an obvious question: If this estimate is correct, is that enough of an improvement to justify the $310 million the state’s general fund will likely pay in each of the next 30 years to repay the bonds?

The money would be added onto the $10 billion to $13 billion now distributed each year to counties for mental health care and drug and alcohol treatment. Roughly one-third of that money comes from a tax on those with $1 million-plus incomes that’s been levied for this purpose since 2005.

That tax would continue under Prop. 1, so there will be no substitution of bond money for tax funds, and the new money should strictly be an add-on.

With about 70% of Californians listing homelessness as California’s biggest unsolved problem, there was plenty of reason to vote for this proposition, but its fate was still uncertain after Election Day. 

But the new bond’s proceeds might seem like a drop in the bucket considering that about 47% of today’s homeless are afflicted with mental or emotional illness, with another 150,000 others in similar difficulty now housed in prisons at a cost of about $130,000 per year.

Some experts said during the Prop. 1 campaign that the urgency of the problem makes every dollar coming in constructive. But maybe not, if that gives voters the sense they’ve just done something important, causing them to become frustrated with government when they see the bonds solving only a bit of the crisis.

For sure, the mental illness problem is severe. For one measure, there’s $217 million just spent by the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District on adding steel netting to prevent suicides by jumping from that landmark span.

Californians who voted for this measure were probably correct to do it, even if it couldn’t by itself solve homelessness or mental health crises. Every dent in the problem represents improvement in the quality of life for many who have been unhoused.

Part of the background of Prop. 1 was the realization that one in every 20 California adults now lives with serious mental illness and the more treatment beds available, the more likely some progress can be made treating those who need help. 

At the same time, one in 13 California children of school age suffers serious emotional disturbance and one in 10 Californians has some sort of substance abuse disorder.

One little publicized part of Prop. 1 speaks to this last issue, allowing a small percentage of current mental health spending to be used against substance abuse. 

Since substance abuse from alcoholism to opioid dependence can lead straight into to mental illness, this might help with both mental illness and drug dependency.

It all amounts to a measure of how Californians are still paying for the single biggest error made by Ronald Reagan, who as governor in the 1960s and ’70s engineered the closing of most of this state’s mental hospitals, which were never replaced.

Reagan planned to set up smaller halfway houses to replace those institutions, letting recovering mental illness patients ease back into society while still getting treatment. Those homes never materialized, and homelessness has proliferated steadily ever since.

If Prop. 1, combined with CARE courts, can solve even a small percentage of today’s problems, it would be a positive. 

But if it’s too little and doesn’t accomplish much, then — if it narrowly passes — it will go down as a waste of public money. 

The proof, as usual, would be in the performance.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]

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