Governor’s homelessness remarks ignite local reservations

Local city officials express skepticism about Governor Newsom’s comments that local governments are dragging their feet on homelessness solutions

Homeless people relax at Luis Ruiz Park along Surabian Drive in Dinuba. (Kenny Goodman)
Homeless people relax at Luis Ruiz Park along Surabian Drive in Dinuba. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published December 22, 2023  • 
10:00 am

SACRAMENTO – In a response to Governor Newsom’s statements that he might reallocate state homelessness funding if local governments do not produce results, local government officials are contending that they are making do with what resources the state has doled out to them.

In a Dec. 15 interview with Nexstar, Newsom expressed his frustration with what he said are the lack of results at the local level.

“I’m frustrated by the lack of intentionality and urgency. People are dying on the streets and sidewalks. People have had it. They are fed up. They are frustrated and I don’t think anything’s more frustrating than hearing from people like me how much money we’re spending,” said Newsom.

Newsom indicated that if local governments are not up to the task, he will find someone else to do the job.

“I am not the mayor. I am not the supervisor. I am not the city administrator of each of these counties. That’s not an excuse. They have to deliver at the local level and my job is to partner with them and push them, and, if they’re not doing the job, find someone that can,” he said.

However, when it comes to “producing results” for individuals who are experiencing homelessness, that task becomes significantly more difficult when impacted parties don’t want help from their local governments, according to city officials. From the community of Reedley, City Manager Nicole Zieba said the city has between 25 to 30 homeless individuals at any given time; and not all of them want help from the city.

“These 25-30 folks – weekly, we’re asking them if we can get them shelter and they simply don’t want that assistance,” she said. “I know there is a segment of our population that simply doesn’t believe that. They can’t believe that someone would choose this lifestyle. But they do and some aren’t even mentally unhealthy.”

Zieba said for a city the size of Reedley with limited resources and there is only so much the city can do. But if the individual does not want help – often the case – the city cannot force the person to get help.

Visalia City Councilmember Liz Wynn, who also sits on the Tulare County Task Force on Homelessness, responded to the Governor’s comments by saying the issue is Sacramento bureaucracy.

“If the governor is put out by lack of progress, it’s because he and the legislature have added so much bureaucracy, legal restrictions and reporting requirements that the costs per person skyrocket,” said Wynn. “When a hotel conversion costs more than a new house, something is wrong with the system.”

Wynn echoed Zieba’s frustration concerning homeless individuals who do not want help or are incapable of making rational decisions.

“What are we supposed to do with the majority of the unhoused who refuse help or are not capable of making the decision to leave the streets due to mental health, drug and alcohol addiction?” Wynn said.

As for Newsom’s contention that local governments are to blame, Wynn said she is dubious.

“If the governor has a better solution, he should share it with all of California,” she said. “Local government is drowning in costs dealing with the unhoused population. It seems that this is a national crisis that needs addressing urgently but no one has figured out how.”

A ROAD BLOCK

In the town of Reedley, Zieba said the city works on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“We put our efforts into the transitional housing shelter we have, so for families and women with children who are about to become homeless, we can get them into that shelter. We find them jobs; we find them housing options,” she said.

She said the city works with providers to help with medical assistance. But the caveat that both Zieba and Wynn noted remains the same: the city can only help those who want help.

“What can we do when somebody doesn’t want assistance?” she said. “There’s no mental health hospital where we can turn them in. Even if we turn them in as a 51/50 for a mental evaluation, they’re turned right back out again in 72 hours.”

Even further, Zieba said Reedley does not receive funding from the state or the federal government. She said it is both laughable and infuriating that Governor Newsom has turned the narrative to cities and counties and vilified local government officials.

“I think we are reaching this crisis point,” said Zieba.” We’re pretty close to a crisis point where the governor is trying to turn the narrative back on to the cities and counties. To me, that’s almost laughable to hear him say that.”

A NATIONWIDE PROBLEM

“What the governor has done is he has taken an issue which is a nationwide problem, a nationwide issue,” said Zieba. “The Supreme Court refused to pick up this issue, and this has essentially left cities and counties around the country stating that homelessness is not a crime.”

Zieba went on to explain that cities cannot move homeless individuals from public locations, nor can they easily disband homeless encampments. 

“It’s infuriating that the governor – because we’re coming upon an election year – has turned the issues to one of cities and counties not doing enough when we have no resources and no tools in the toolkit,” she said.

To highlight her frustration, Zieba pointed to a local homeless individual who has worn grooves into the justice turnstile.

“He has been homeless for a number of years in Reedley. His family lives in Reedley,” she said. “We have arrested him no less than 20 or 30 times (over three years). For things like drug sales, arson. He has caught our restrooms on fire multiple times. For some reason, he really loves our splash pad park. He has tried to catch it on fire; tried to vandalize it. He is very, very drug addicted. Not mentally all there.”

Zieba said that when the police arrest him for a more serious crime, he is processed. He is given a court date, which he skips. A warrant is issued. He is picked up and taken to jail, where he is fed, given a shower and a place to sleep.

“He’s given another court date and he doesn’t show up,” she said. “It’s a revolving door. People ask us why aren’t you arresting him? Why aren’t you taking him in? We do.”

Zieba noted that she is a fan of Newsom’s CARE Courts, which is a plan from the governor to help people with untreated psychotic disorders with treatment and services for their health and well-being. However, while she believes it is a step in the right direction, she knows it is only a matter of time before the procedure is contested in court.

According to Zieba, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has said the governor’s framework will be litigated. As an example, she mentioned a case involving a person who was eating their own feces, and argued that some would say that person should have been cared for under a conservatorship.

“I believe it was the ACLU, or similar type of law organization, that fought for him to retain his rights for freedom so that he could simply stay out on the streets eating his own feces,” Zieba said. “The public doesn’t hear that side of it.”

Darren Fraser
Reporter