JOE MATHEWS: A citizens’ assembly for the homeless | Opinion
You’ve all made real progress in solving California’s long-running homelessness crisis — from instituting the use of hotels as temporary housing to securing billions in new funding. But the crisis persists. And its costs – for the welfare of homeless people, for public health and for trust in government – are mounting.
In a new Berkeley IGS poll, two out of three voters rate your handling of homelessness as “poor” or “very poor.” And it’s not just you. California residents tell focus groups they don’t think an elected official can solve homelessness.
That’s why you should ask the people of California to solve the problem themselves.
The answer lies in a tool of people’s democracy that has become a common method in other countries to address the most divisive issues.
The tool is called the citizens’ assembly — a temporary government of regular citizens convened to study a problem and find solutions.
Ireland has used citizens’ assemblies to resolve social disputes related to abortion and same-sex marriage. France has convened a citizens’ assembly on climate change. North Macedonia recently had one on vaccine hesitancy.
Although citizens’ assemblies are little known in California, they are not entirely new. Petaluma envisions a form of citizens’ assembly, a political jury, to determine the future of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds property. Not so long ago, your columnist proposed an international citizens’ assembly to govern the US-Mexico border.
How could such a process be applied to homelessness here?
To be effective, the California Citizens’ Assembly on Homelessness would need official authorization from you and the legislature. Such an assembly would be made up of California residents chosen by lot from a group of ordinary people – but with checks to ensure that the members of the body are representative of the state in terms of geography, race, background. ethnicity, political party and gender.
It would be wise to have an overrepresented population in such an assembly: people who are currently homeless, or who have experienced homelessness in recent years.
The citizens’ assembly would also need the power to subpoena witnesses and a large enough budget to bring in technical experts to help citizens. Above all, the assembly must have the power to transform its ideas and recommendations into laws and constitutional amendments.
You must ensure that all laws proposed by the assembly will automatically be introduced into the legislature and that all constitutional measures proposed by the assembly will automatically be put on the national ballot.
The mechanics of such an assembly may seem complicated to you, Governor. The people who organize these things can make your head spin when they talk about specifics – thinking, for example, of the idea that functionally a citizens’ assembly is really two assemblies: a group of citizens to study the issue and create an agenda for change, and a second group to write the actual proposals, laws, and ballot measures.
Critics will dismiss the assembly not only as too complex, but also as too new and too multifaceted. They will urge you to keep the homelessness portfolio in your hands, call special legislative sessions, or draft new funding or ballot measures yourself.
Don’t let them shake you.
And don’t let them tell you that ordinary Californians don’t understand homelessness. At this point, homelessness is so widespread that public knowledge and experience of the problem runs deep. This makes it an ideal case for a citizens’ assembly.
If the legislature balks at funding such an assembly, I suspect you’ll find that the California philanthropic community would be willing to step in. And many of our major public universities, having committed themselves to addressing homelessness under the rubric of social justice and community integration, are likely to provide experts, technology and students for such an endeavour.
Indeed, the best case for a citizens’ assembly is that it would galvanize Californians, garnering widespread attention and creating a common statewide forum for understanding homelessness.
Right now, our responses to homelessness are divided — by local jurisdictions, by an overlapping set of state programs, and by political campaigns that view homelessness as a corner issue. A citizens’ assembly could bridge these divides and be a unifying force.
And since the assembly would meet in public – both online and in person (be sure to reserve a building large enough to hold the public who might want to watch the proceedings) – this could provide a model of how, in polarized times, Californians of each band can eliminate their differences and find better ways to move forward.
Yes, it is possible that the assembly fails. But that wouldn’t leave California worse off than it is now. And if the state convened a citizens’ assembly and that body had a huge impact on the homelessness crisis, California would become a true national leader in homeless housing.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.