As he was celebrating his landslide re-election Nov. 8, a reporter asked Gavin Newsom what his most important issue would be during his second term.

He quickly replied that it would be confronting homelessness and the state’s chronic shortage of housing.

It was a déjà vu moment. Nearly three years earlier, Newsom had devoted virtually all of his second State of the State address to those issues, particularly the many thousands of people camped on the streets and sidewalks of California’s major cities.

“Let’s call it what it is, a disgrace, that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is failing to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” Newsom told legislators, while outlining a series of proposals he wanted them to enact.

“The biggest risk is not taking a risk on homelessness,” Newsom later told reporters. “The biggest risk is denying the reality that we see on the streets and sidewalks across the state. The biggest risk is abdicating responsibility, pointing fingers.”

However, just a few weeks after Newsom delivered that speech, he declared a state of emergency as the murderous COVID-19 pandemic hammered the state. He shut down much of the state’s economy to limit spread of the disease and the pandemic became his preoccupation for the next two years while the state’s worst-in-the-nation homelessness crisis deepened.

A few days before winning re-election last week, Newsom stepped back into the homelessness crisis in a big way — harshly criticizing local government officials for failing to write aggressive and effective plans to spend state funds to reduce the number of unhoused people.

“Californians demand accountability and results, not settling for the status quo,” Newsom said in a statement as he suspended distribution of the funds. “As a state, we are failing to meet the urgency of this moment. Collectively, these plans set a goal to reduce street homelessness 2% statewide by 2024. At this pace, it would take decades to significantly curb homelessness in California — this approach is simply unacceptable. Everyone has to do better — cities, counties, and the state included. We are all in this together.”

Newsom was even more pointed in a Los Angeles Times interview, saying, “Deliver damn results. … It’s a crisis. Act like it. Everybody step up. I’m not the mayor. You want me to come in? I’ll do the job. I’ll do it. Happily. I’ve been going into cities cleaning up encampments. Has anyone gotten the hint? If someone did that to me when I was mayor, I’d be like, ‘OK, I got it.’”

Newsom’s action touched off angry reactions from local officials, who complained that he was seemingly “pointing fingers” in violation of his 2020 injunction.

“Now is not the time to play politics when people’s lives are at stake,” Carolyn Coleman, CEO of the League of California Cities, replied to Newsom. “Failing to release state funding will not put roofs over the heads of Californians or deliver desperately needed supportive services.”

Polls tell us that homelessness — or at least its squalid visibility — looms large in the public’s consciousness and it was a significant factor in this year’s elections. Newsom didn’t have to worry about his own re-election, but it was the pivotal issue in the hard-fought battle for the Los Angeles mayoralty and figured in other local campaigns.

If Newsom does run for the presidency despite his current denials of interest, one can be certain that homelessness would be a weapon for his opponents — unless he can point to significant reduction, or blame someone else for the failure.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters. Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers.

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