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Cuts that hurt

Eliminating money for integrated homeless services would be a step backward for California.

July 18, 2007

COUNTIES GET state money they can use to house the homeless. They get money they can spend to treat the mentally ill. But the quirks and aggravations of government being what they are, counties can't spend homeless dollars to treat the mentally ill or mental health dollars to house the homeless. Sound reasonable? Not if people living on the street need mental health treatment. Which, obviously, many do. How smart is it to bring a person in for treatment, then send him back to the street until his next appointment?

In a rare fit of common sense, Sacramento launched a pilot program in 1999 to make tax dollars smarter by allowing them to be used for real people grappling with more than one problem at a time. In Los Angeles County, where the homeless crisis is most severe, aid for a few homeless became integrated -- housing, drug treatment, healthcare, the works. This is the model for finally making progress on the homeless problem. We need more programs like this.

So why did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decide earlier this year to cut the $55 million that now goes to 34 counties for integrated services? He does have to cut something, because a chasm of about $3 billion gapes between a balanced budget and his vision for California. But his solution was an age-old political shell game: Kill the program, then let counties duplicate it with money from the Proposition 63 "millionaires' tax" that voters approved three years ago.

Nice try. The initiative is supposed to expand service, not provide a fig leaf for eliminating it. Besides, a clause barring counties from using the new tax for existing programs makes that solution look legally dubious.

A legislative conference committee restored integrated services, but the past-due state budget puts the cut back on the table, even if just as a bargaining chip. Democrats say they won't let the program go, and good for them; but they're anxious to get a budget deal. Republicans say they want fiscal responsibility, and good for them; but they seem ready to slash just about anything.

This is a place where slashing would be foolish. Cutting integrated services would put formerly homeless people, now finally getting treatment, back on the street. Or back into jail. Instead of turning the corner on homelessness, California would be walking back into a dead end.

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