Once a Sure Thing, Newsom’s Homelessness Measure Barely Passes


A key piece of California’s strategy to address its homelessness crisis was narrowly approved by voters in the state, The Associated Press determined on Wednesday, in a stunningly close margin that had Democrats on edge for more than two weeks.

The measure, known as Proposition 1, includes a $6.4 billion bond to fund treatment and housing for homeless people with severe mental illnesses and addiction. Last year, when Gov. Gavin Newsom and a bipartisan group of California legislators placed Proposition 1 on the spring ballot, early polls suggested that it would pass easily.

Its approval was considered such a sure thing that most voters and political donors were scarcely aware that opposition existed. But after the March 5 election, it took 15 days of tallying mail-in ballots for The Associated Press to determine that the measure had squeaked by.

The count took so long that Mr. Newsom decided to postpone his annual state of the state address, which was originally scheduled for Monday, because he had wanted to celebrate Proposition 1 during his speech and highlight his efforts on homelessness and mental health.

On Wednesday, the governor framed the win less as a close call than a bold choice by Californians who have been frustrated for years with the scale of the state’s homelessness problem.

“This is the biggest change in decades in how California tackles homelessness, and a victory for doing things radically different,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement. “Proposition 1’s passage means we can begin repairing the damage caused by decades of broken promises and political neglect to those suffering from severe mental illness.”

In California, more people have been living on the streets since the coronavirus pandemic began four years ago, and residents have repeatedly listed homelessness as a top state concern.

On Wednesday, however, returns showed the measure on track to pass with just 50.2 percent of voters approving. The gap was less than 30,000 votes out of more than 7 million cast in the race. Outside of heavily Democratic cities, which have been affected most by encampments, approval was lower than expected.

“The Bay Area, Los Angeles, some of the North Coast supported it,” said Mark Baldassare, the survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California, who is writing a book on California ballot measures. “But a lot of the state did not.”

There were several theories as to why Mr. Newsom and Democrats had struggled to galvanize support for the measure. A growing budget chasm in the tens of billions of dollars could have discouraged voters from approving more spending. In a poll conducted in January by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, 54 percent of likely voters characterized the state deficit as “extremely serious.”

Mr. Newsom scheduled Proposition 1 for the primary to avoid competition with other measures in November, when the ballot is typically more crowded. But primary elections typically draw a more conservative electorate with fewer voters, especially when there isn’t a competitive presidential or governor’s race at the top of the ticket, and polls showed Republicans overwhelmingly opposed Proposition 1.

Only about a third of registered voters cast ballots in the California primary, and Republicans comprised about 31 percent despite making up less than a quarter of registered voters.

“This was pure turnout, which we knew would be low, but no one could have predicted it would be this low,” said David Townsend, a Sacramento political consultant whose specialties include bond measures.

A related theory was that the Democratic establishment nearly foiled itself by spending tens of millions of dollars on ads promoting Steve Garvey as the “too conservative” Republican candidate in the Senate primary to succeed the late Dianne Feinstein. In doing so, they created an easier path for Representative Adam Schiff to win the seat in November, but also risked turning out more voters who could reject a key priority for Mr. Newsom.

Paul Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant and political data expert, said that in exit polls he conducted, some segments of the Garvey vote had cited the Senate race as their main reason for casting a ballot. Overall, he said, they represented only a tiny sliver of the electorate, but may have helped to make the Proposition 1 outcome closer than it would have been.

Mr. Baldassare said it was more likely that voters had been confused by a ballot measure that touched on complex social and psychological problems. “The default for voters is to always vote no if they don’t understand something about an issue,” he said.

Moreover, he said, the campaign for Proposition 1, with more than $13.6 million worth of ads on television and online, was dominated not by mental health professionals or frustrated downtown business owners, but by Mr. Newsom, whose approval rating in California has fallen below 50 percent for the first time in almost five years.

When the outcome was still undecided more than a week after Election Day, Mr. Newsom began seeking volunteers to help find voters whose ballots had gone uncounted because their mail-in ballot signatures did not match those on file. Under California law, those voters are supposed to be notified of a discrepancy and have the opportunity to fill out a form to have their ballots counted.

Democrats and Republicans have conducted similar outreach before in smaller races, but such efforts are rare in statewide contests involving millions of ballots.

Mr. Newsom made homelessness a signature priority when he first became governor in 2019. Public concern intensified during the pandemic as downtown tent camps spread in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities that had been emptied by lockdowns.

California’s Democratic leadership has been under intense pressure to remove the camps, even as soaring housing costs and an influx of fentanyl have exacerbated homelessness in cities. Proposition 1 was crafted to target one of the thorniest aspects of the problem: severe mental illness and addiction.

The state has already pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into housing people in hotels and motels. Proposition 1 will further expand that program, financing about 11,000 treatment beds and housing units with health care and social services for homeless people with mental illnesses and addiction.

Most of the money would be raised by borrowing, through the bond measure, with an additional $140 million more per year redirected from an existing state tax on millionaires. At last count, more than 180,000 people were homeless in California.

A wide-ranging study released last summer by the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, found that about two-thirds of the homeless people interviewed had serious symptoms of mental illness, but only about 18 percent had recently been treated. Like many states, California has an acute shortage of adult psychiatric treatment beds.

California also needs more subsidized inpatient options for people with substance abuse disorders. And the state has some of the nation’s strongest civil rights protections for people with mental illness.

Some of California’s biggest interest groups contributed to Mr. Newsom’s campaign account supporting the measure. State records show that Proposition 1 collected more than $15.7 million, with a donor list that included a Bay Area tribe, labor unions, builders, health care providers, Uber and the California Chamber of Commerce. The only organized opposition collected only about $1,000.

Still, there were concerns. Some counties and smaller mental health organizations argued that diverting mental health dollars to homeless people could cut into funding for local programs serving people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. communities and other groups.

And civil liberties groups charged that Proposition 1 would lead to more involuntary treatment. Last year, Mr. Newsom signed legislation that could allow for more conservatorships. This year, the state rolled out a program that would allow courts to compel people with severe, untreated mental illness into treatment. Proposition 1 will help underwrite that court program, known as CARE Court.

In a statement issued days before The Associated Press called the race, Californians Against Prop. 1, a coalition of civil rights groups, people with disabilities and local mental health programs, said that the measure “could be a humanitarian disaster if it is not well managed.”

“The incredibly narrow approval of Prop. 1 is the voters saying, ‘Do not let that happen,’” the coalition said.

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