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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

Still, experts say people with severe conditions make up a minority of the unhoused population, making clear the state must also continue investing in housing if it hopes to end homelessness.

“This conversation is focused on a very small subset because those folks become the most visible when they’re outside,” said Ray Bramson, chief operating officer of Destination: Home, a Silicon Valley homelessness solutions nonprofit.

The bond money would be distributed through project grants, for which counties would apply. The bonds would cost the state an estimated $310 million annually over 30 years, less than half a percent of its expected general fund revenue, according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report.

Proposition 1 would also require counties to spend 30% of the cash they receive from the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act — a state tax on millionaires — on rental assistance and supportive housing construction, including for homeless people. The mental health tax raises roughly $1 billion each year.

Additionally, counties would have to spend 35% of those funds on people with the most critical needs. For some counties, that could mean shifting money away from programs to help those with milder symptoms. The measure would also redirect about $140 million each year from counties to bolster state mental health programs.

What else is the state doing to overhaul its strained mental health system?

 

Proposition 1 backers blame the shuttering of many of California’s massive psychiatric hospitals starting in the 1960s for the overburdened mental health system it has today.

The closures were part of a statewide movement to “deinstitutionalize” people with mental health issues and other disabilities. That effort culminated with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signing the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which strictly limits when people can be involuntarily committed.

The state now has a shortage of roughly 7,730 treatment and residential care beds, according to a 2021 study from the public policy think tank RAND. That’s about 1,000 more than Proposition 1 promises to create.

Even so, Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said adding beds would ensure local officials are successful in “bringing in those who can’t make decisions for themselves, because of whatever situation that they are in, and giving them an opportunity to live out their life in a dignified way.”

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