a homeless man in a doorway

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is fond — perhaps overly so — of the phrase “meet the moment.”

It translates roughly into willingness to handle pressing issues and, of course, he uses it mostly to describe his own resolve.

So, one might ask, are Newsom, the Legislature, and city and county officials truly willing to confront California’s worst-in-the-nation epidemic of homelessness that gives its cities a third world ambiance?

Whether or not Newsom intends to pursue his political career beyond the state, he knows that its squalid urban images undermine his oft-voiced characterization of California as a shining model of progressive governance.

The harsh reality is that despite spending billions of federal, state and local taxpayers’ dollars on programs aimed at sheltering the unsheltered and ameliorating underlying factors, the number of homeless people on the streets, sidewalks and parks of California cities continues to climb and at a minimum approaches 200,000.

Repeatedly, California voters disgusted by the filth and/or moved by compassion tell pollsters that homelessness is a crisis that politicians must address. Los Angeles voters just elected a new mayor, Karen Bass, on her promise to clean up the city and passed a new tax on real estate transactions that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars to make it happen. A newly re-elected Newsom says it will be the highest priority of his second term.

The specifics of what they or other political figures might do are murky, since there’s little, if any, consensus on what approaches would be most effective, and the lines of responsibility among the various levels of government are equally blurry. One obvious problem is that while homelessness is most evident within cities, health and welfare programs are largely administered by counties, using state and federal funds.

That conflict is very evident in Sacramento, the state capital, where city and county officials have sparred constantly over who’s responsible. Sacramento city voters just passed a new law banning homeless encampments on public property — but only if the city and county can agree on new shelters or campgrounds.

It’s one of a slew of new laws passed by either voters or local officials to restrict where the homeless can camp. Newsom, meanwhile, is clamping down on encampments along state-owned roadways.

Intergovernmental wrangling surfaced publicly just before the election when Newsom rejected all plans to reduce homelessness submitted by local officials who were trying to qualify for a new pot of state money.

He complained that the plans would seek only a 2% decline in homelessness, adding, “Everyone has to do better — cities, counties and the state included. We are all in this together.”

He was even more pointed in a Los Angeles Times interview, saying, “Deliver damn results. … It’s a crisis. Act like it. Everybody step up. I’m not the mayor. You want me to come in? I’ll do the job. I’ll do it. Happily. I’ve been going into cities cleaning up encampments. Has anyone gotten the hint? If someone did that to me when I was mayor, I’d be like, ‘OK, I got it.’”

Later, he met with a delegation of local officials and they emerged with pledges to become more aggressive in dealing with the issue. However, local officials are still reluctant to make commitments for programs without assurances of long-term financial support.

California officialdom could be poised for a big crusade on homelessness. But will it meet the moment, or continue to throw money at the problem — a little here, a little there — without coordinated and sustained action while the squalor, the human misery and the political finger-pointing continue?

Dan Walters is a writer for CalMatters where this article was originally published.