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California Homelessness Crisis Will Haunt Newsom in Debate With DeSantis

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If California Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, debates Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, expect the state’s homelessness crisis to be a major point of conflict. (GV Wire Composite/David Rodriguez)
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After exchanging long-distance insults for months, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will supposedly have a face-to-face debate some place and some time in the fall.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

DeSantis is trying to gain traction as a Republican candidate for president in 2024 while Newsom is trying to establish himself as a national Democratic Party leader with potential White House ambitions circa 2028. Each portrays his state as a model of governance for the nation to emulate.

If it happens – and it’s not certain, given squabbling over details – a Newsom-DeSantis debate would be the political equivalent of another clash of overstimulated egos, the cage match between two tech tycoons Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

While Newsom seems to be the glibber of the two, and thus is favored by media handicappers to out-talk his rival, the California governor has one enormous albatross sitting on his shoulder: his state’s ever-worsening homelessness crisis – and he knows it.

When Newsom was interviewed by Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity in June – an appearance where debating DeSantis was first suggested – he was forced to acknowledge the seeming intractability of his state’s homelessness disaster.

“The state has not made progress in the last two decades as it relates to homelessness,” the California governor said flatly.

“Because housing costs are too high,” Newsom replied as Hannity pressed him for reasons. “Our regulatory thickets are too problematic. Localism has been too impactful, meaning people locally are pushing back against new housing starts and construction.”

Hannity contrasted California’s more than 171,000 homeless people with Florida’s 26,000 and Newsom replied, “Of course, not even comparable.”

“The dynamics are very different,” Newsom continued, without explaining them. “That said, we own this, Sean. I’m not here defending this.”

$20 Billion Spent on Homelessness Since Newsom Became Governor

A few weeks later, California got another indication that homelessness is continuing to expand even though state and local governments have spent and are spending billions of dollars on efforts to reduce it – nearly $20 billion by the state alone since Newsom became governor.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which was created to find solutions to the crisis, released its latest count of people living on the streets.

“This year, we estimate that 75,518 people experience homelessness on any given night in Los Angeles County, and 46,260 people do so in the city of Los Angeles,” the authority said. The number of homeless people rose 9% in Los Angeles County, as a whole, over the 2022 count, and 10% within the city.

“Last year, it appeared that the curve of homelessness growth started to flatten, but we’re back to seeing a trajectory that mirrored previous years,” the authority’s report acknowledged.

Since the 2015 count, homelessness has increased by 70% in the county and 80% in the city, and the crisis has an inescapable racial aspect. While Black people make up just 9% of Los Angeles County’s population, they represent 32% of the county’s homeless population with Latinos another 43%.

Obviously, homelessness is an immense human tragedy, but it also is a political liability not only for Newsom but other figures, such as Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who won her position last year on a promise to solve it. It bears an uncanny resemblance to Newsom’s promise two decades ago, when he was the mayor of San Francisco, that he would end homelessness in 10 years.

DeSantis wants his debate with Newsom to begin with videos of each governor making his case. If that happens, we can expect DeSantis’ video to feature the ever-spreading squalor of California’s homeless encampments.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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