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Jan Lee headshot

Record Homelessness Spurs California, NYC and Hawaii to Act

Words by Jan Lee

More than 500,000 people in the United States are homeless on any given night, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. In 2013, more than 20 percent of those homeless men, women and children lived in California. New York state accounted for just over 13 percent.  While some of those numbers have been attributed to economic factors following the recession, homelessness is still a burgeoning problem in the country's largest cities.

And so is the homelessness of people with mental illness. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2010 more than a quarter of the country's homeless individuals suffered from some form of severe mental illness. It's a staggering number, when considering that only 4.2 percent of the country's total population in 2014 were deemed to have severe mental illness.

Last week, a group of Senate Democrats in California proposed a plan to address the issue in their state, with a $2 billion bond that would build new housing for homeless individuals with mental illness. According to Senate president pro tem, Kevin de León, the money -- which would be funded by California's Proposition 63 (passed in 2004 as the Mental Health Act) -- would provide enough funding to build 10,000 units.

León also said that he would support another $2 million in general fund revenue (over four years) to be committed to rent subsidies for homeless individuals, as well as an increase in the state's Supplemental Security Income allotments.

The proposal has received moderate bipartisan support. Sen. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) noted that supporters are "trying to do something about a persistent problem." Fomer Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who authored Prop. 63, called it “the boldest proposal to reduce homelessness in a generation, if not longer.”

Not everyone is happy with the proposal, however. Rose King, a mental health advocate who co-authored Prop. 63, criticized the plan, saying that the state should first fix the mental health program before it uses the money to build housing.

Nor is this the first time that the state faced criticism for the way it has earmarked Prop 63 funds. In 2013 Peter Mantas, former head of Contra Costa Mental Health Commission, charged that the state was using the money from the Mental Health Act for "little feel-good programs" that didn't have a significant impact on overall services for mentally ill residents. His comments were made in anticipation of the release of the state's audit of mental health services.

King has also weighed in on the issue in the past, suggesting that the state's historic use of funds that were designed to bolster programs and much-needed assistance across the board for mentally ill individuals has become "a model of discrimination and waste."

The proposal, which would need to go to ballot first, would provide about $130 million from Prop 63's $1.8 billion coffers, according to Senate Dems.

California is also not the only location to propose building housing that would help provide support for homeless individuals suffering from mental illness. In 2015, the De Blasio administration in New York City upped its "supportive housing" with a $2.6 billion proposal to build another 15,000 units. The apartments would be city-financed and built in supportive communities that would be visited weekly by a social worker.

Both Los Angeles and the state of Hawaii recently declared states of emergency due to rising numbers in homelessness. According to Hawaii's government, it holds the record for the highest per-capita homelessness among the 50 states, with approximately 6,500 homeless individuals, or 465 per 100,000. Hawaii's answer has been equally innovative: to house some eligible individuals in grass huts.

"Our thought process should be broad and out-of-the-box in order to develop solutions to address the issue of housing as well as assist those who need help," said Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (D-Honolulu), who proposed the bill and suggested that "there is an interest in recapturing some of the traditional ways of living among our people here in Hawaii."

It is not yet clear whether there would be toilets in the thatched huts, or how this unusual concept in state-sponsored housing would address concerns about worsening climate change in a state susceptible to its effects.

Image credit: Flickr/davejdoe

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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