Don’t Be Fooled by Proposition 1’s False Promises

Feb 16, 2024
Eve Garrow

Page Media

Casting a ballot in California

J. didn’t complain much when she was living in her car, despite her multiple mental health conditions and a diagnosis of stage-three cancer. At least she could lock her car doors for safety, she told me. But when her vehicle was repossessed on New Years Eve, life became unbearable. As her mental health symptoms flared, J. frantically reached out to local nonprofit, city, and county programs for help. No one even answered the phone. Only when a local parish paid for a motel room did J. avoid sleeping outside that night.  

California ACLUs envision a world in which people like J. have immediate access to the voluntary care and permanent housing they require to live fully and equally in their communities, free from coercion, deprivation, and fear. Housing and health care are human rights, and affordable housing with voluntary wrap-around services is the solution to our state’s houselessness crisis. But decades of disinvestment have left California’s affordable housing and community mental health systems in shambles, unable to come close to making this dream a reality. Wait lists for subsidized affordable housing are typically years long, and sometimes over a decade long, while people are often unable to access the community-based mental health care they require to stay well. These deprivations are linked: the grinding hardship and discrimination unhoused people face contribute to the deterioration of health and mental health, increase the risk of premature death, and interfere with the effectiveness of treatment. Black people, who confront discrimination in all areas of life, are hit hardest by these inequities. 

Instead of replenishing our system of care, state legislators are asking voters in the March primary to consider Proposition 1, a zero-sum initiative that pits California’s housing and voluntary community-based mental health needs against one another while taking us back to a dark era of forced treatment and institutionalization.  

Proposition 1 would take Mental Health Services Act dollars away from community-based mental health programs, voluntary crisis care, and other critical mental health services to fund a small number of housing opportunities for unsheltered Californians. Moreover, the initiative is horribly inefficient. Though touted as a solution to houselessness, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, Proposition 1 would provide housing for only about three percent of the total number of Californians who are unhoused on any given day—while a separate, upcoming housing measure with a similar price tag would provide 20 times that amount. Meanwhile, many of the community-based mental health care programs targeted by Proposition 1 for defunding would likely disappear. 

With enormous cost to taxpayers, Proposition 1 would also impose a new $6.8 billion bond to primarily fund forced treatment and institutionalization—not the community-based mental health services and housing that Californians like J. need to avoid more expensive, restrictive, coercive, and often traumatizing interventions.  

What would it take to create a state in which everyone can thrive? First, voters should send a clear message to their representatives in the state legislature by voting NO on Proposition 1. 

Moving forward, Californians should demand real solutions, starting with investments in voluntary housing and care that are generous enough to end the houselessness crisis and to meet the mental health needs of all Californians—delivered in the community and on demand. These housing programs cannot be delivered at the expense of closing our community mental health programs and setting back decades of progress. 

To achieve this goal, Californians should call for a fair, just, and equitable tax and transfer system. California gives away tens of billions of dollars annually in tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy instead of investing those dollars in our communities, while starving critical services for everyone else. At the same time, California's tax policies are regressive, with our poorest community members, like J., paying a larger share of income in taxes than most other income groups when income, sales, and excise taxes are combined. 

In a state as rich as California—which boasts the world’s largest sub-national economy and 5th largest economy in the world—funding sources are available. We cannot accept Proposition 1’s false narrative that the only way to solve houselessness is to take money away from other critical community-based services. California can easily raise the revenues to meet the housing and mental health needs of all our community members by creating a fair and equitable tax and transfer system.  

J. was overcome with gratitude and relief when the local parish stepped in to spare her from a night on the streets. But J.’s safety and wellbeing on that bitterly cold evening should never have hinged on charity. Her harrowing experience is a reminder that Californians must come together to reject false promises like Proposition 1. We must demand tax equity and the public investments needed to create a healthy and vibrant state in which everyone is treated with dignity, and no one is left behind. This is what we owe to one another.

Eve Garrow is the Senior Policy Analyst at ACLU SoCal

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Ad paid for by ACLU of Northern California Issues Committee.