Women walk past homeless encampments in Venice Beach in Los Angeles on June 8, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Eight mayors and three county supervisors signed a letter sent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders on Aug. 21 requesting an additional $1.5 billion in funding to support a bill designed to improve mental health access for low-income and homeless people.
“We have reached a crisis point,” the authors wrote in the letter sent to lawmakers and posted on X
, formerly known as Twitter, the same day. “Seriously mentally ill and addicted Californians are languishing in our communities in dangerous encampments.”
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria led the group of city officials from across the state, including Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, and other mayors and supervisors representing Long Beach, Oakland, Riverside, Sacramento, and San Jose.
At issue is Assembly Bill 531, authored by Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks)—also known as the Behavioral Health Infrastructure Bond Act. The bill would create a nearly $5 billion bond measure to be decided by voters in the 2024 primary election.
The lawmakers are asking to revise the bond amount to $6.5 billion to meet the demand for addiction recovery and mental health services, as officials are looking to add thousands of treatment beds and supportive housing units where mental health counselors can assist residents, according to the letter.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria speaks at a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on April 25, 2023. (Screenshot via California State Senate)
“An additional $1.5 billion investment above and beyond the funds already proposed in AB 531, specifically set aside for cities and counties alone, will direct needed funds to those best positioned to rapidly deploy new housing and services for people in need,” the letter read. “This would allow us to serve tens of thousands more Californians who desperately need housing, treatment, and recovery resources.”
The legislation began as a bill intended to fund housing for veterans in the amount of $660 million. The proposal was amended in June to include mental health services for veterans and homeless people totaling approximately $4.7 billion—with $865 million allocated to assist veterans. The remainder is slated for housing and for construction of 10,000 beds in clinical settings with staff to assist with addiction and mental health treatment.
More than 40,000 homeless Californians suffer from severe mental illness, and more than 30,000 are addicted to drugs, according to the legislative analysis of the bill.
Veterans are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, with more than 10,000 experiencing homelessness in 2022, according to a population count conducted by the state. At least 50 percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness, and 70 percent engage in substance abuse, according to the analysis.
“The connection between homelessness and behavioral health challenges is significant,” Ms. Irwin wrote in support of the bill. “[AB 531] will expand access to high quality, unlocked, community–based residential care for those with the greatest needs. Additionally, it will dedicate funding to veterans with behavioral health needs who are currently experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.”
An accompanying bill related to mental health services, Senate Bill 326—authored by Sen. Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) and designed to modernize the state’s Mental Health Services Act, which was approved by voters in 2004 to address a growing need for mental health resources, has passed the Assembly Health Committee and will next be heard by the Assembly’s Housing and Community Development Committee.
San Francisco, Calif., on Feb. 23, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
In a press release
Aug. 23 celebrating the progress of SB 326, the governor stressed the need for immediate action to confront homelessness and mental health issues affecting the state.
“Californians know the urgency needed to address the crises our state and our country are facing, from opioids to mental health to homelessness. The status quo is simply unacceptable,” Mr. Newsom said in the release. “This reform will ensure our state has a true mental health care system that has real accountability so people can get help.”
Supporters of AB 531 include the California Professional Firefighters organization and the Steinberg Institute—a nonprofit public policy group based in Sacramento. No opposition is listed in the legislative analyses, and the proposal passed the Senate floor earlier this year with a unanimous vote.
The bill is now awaiting consideration by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Aug. 28 after a planned hearing, Aug. 21, was canceled because of travel concerns related to Tropical Storm Hilary.
The bill is also a candidate for the so-called suspense file—where lawmakers consider bills, as a whole, that require certain amounts of state funding. If so, leadership would determine its fate on Sept. 1 in a hearing with no debate allowed.
Neither Mayor Gloria nor Gov. Newsom responded to requests for comment by press time.