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Can a $6.4 billion mental health ballot measure solve California homelessness?

Ethan Varian, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

For decades, thousands of Californians struggling with mental health and addiction have languished on the street. Now, voters will decide whether a March 5 ballot measure is the solution to get them the care they desperately need.

Proposition 1, the only statewide measure on the ballot, would raise almost $6.4 billion in bonds for more than 11,000 new treatment beds and homeless housing units. The two-part measure would also use money already in the mental health system to expand intensive care programs and build supportive housing, potentially leaving fewer funds for early intervention or other services. It would do both without raising taxes.

Backers of Proposition 1 acknowledge it would help only a fraction of California’s estimated 181,000 unhoused residents. But they say the measure largely targets homeless people with the highest needs — the ones voters are most likely to see wandering into traffic or yelling at no one.

While disability rights advocates and some local officials have raised concerns about the prospect of more involuntary detentions and changes to mental health funding, Proposition 1 has broad support from both Republican and Democrat state lawmakers, who’ve sent the measure to voters amid increasing public pressure to get a handle on homelessness. They describe Proposition 1 as the linchpin of an ongoing mental health overhaul aimed at compelling more people with severe psychiatric disorders into treatment.

“We’ve created more flexibility, more tools, more accountability, more resources,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom. “Now, we need more beds.”

What would Prop. 1 do, exactly?


The measure would allow the state to issue $6.38 billion in bonds to add an estimated 6,800 beds for people needing mental health care or addiction treatment in hopes of making up for a bed shortage that also extends nationwide. Including state hospitals, California currently has an estimated 21,000 psychiatric beds. Prop. 1 would also fund around 4,350 homeless housing units, with about 2,350 set aside for homeless veterans.

Counties could use the money to build or expand a range of treatment centers, from long-term residential care facilities for those in more stable condition to locked-door clinics for those in crisis. New housing projects would have on-site services to connect residents with mental health care or drug counseling.

Although the added mental health beds would not be specifically for homeless people, the overarching goal is to help those with the most serious disorders and disabilities, who often end up on the street.

According to a UC San Francisco survey of homeless people across the state last year, more than two-thirds said they were experiencing mental health symptoms.


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