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HELPING PEOPLE OFF THE STREETS

Pairing Help With Housing

May 12, 2003

Among the hundreds of well-intentioned bills now chasing increasingly scarce money up and down Sacramento's legislative corridors, at least one stands out for its ability to do good without doing the state in. AB 1475 by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) would create thousands of stable homes for mentally ill people who would otherwise be forced to wander the streets. And the money is already there, waiting to be spent.

The story begins last November, when California voters generously approved Proposition 46, an "affordable housing" bond that set aside a $195-million sliver of a total $2.1 billion to provide "supportive housing" for people who because of serious mental illness or substance abuse lacked places of their own to go at night. Developers, however, have put in few bids. To Steinberg, it's no wonder why. Though the proposition gives developers the money for the housing part -- the stucco and 2-by-4s they need to build or renovate units -- it doesn't fund the "supportive" part: the community services, such as counseling and job training, that particularly troubled people often need to stay in housing over the long term.

Steinberg's new bill, which the full Assembly may consider as early as this week, would let counties pay for such services by drawing from a $55-million-a-year program created by one of his earlier bills. That legislation created outpatient mental health teams that identify and help mentally ill and substance-abusing people at risk of living on the streets. These people often end up cycling, endlessly and expensively, through jails, psychiatric hospitals and emergency rooms.

The bill would also improve the old programs by requiring them to measure their progress in finding permanent housing for their enrollees. At present those efforts often put people with addictions or mental illness in hotel rooms costing up to $800 a month, then lose track of whether they even stay in the rooms. By creating thousands of supportive housing units costing no more than $360 a month, the new bill would not only make use of Proposition 46 dollars that are now lying fallow, it would also reduce the drain that high rental costs are putting on programs, freeing up more money to use for job training, counseling and other supportive services.

There is a political reason why Steinberg is pushing AB 1475 now. He believes that by linking the programs to the existing bond money -- which, by design, cannot be folded back into the general fund to relieve the budget shortfall -- he will spare them from the Legislature's next round of cuts.

But it so happens that Steinberg's political incentive is in the state's best interest. By passing AB 1475, lawmakers could create homes and provide the services that mentally ill and addicted people require to take advantage of them. As they weigh their votes, legislators might glance at the ceilings over their heads and remember that just four years ago they put their names to legislation that called housing "an essential human need."

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