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Citizen's Assembly: Californians Coming Together

Skid row in Los Angeles. Image via AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

Let the People of California Solve the State's Homelessness Problem

Dear Governor Newsom,

You’ve made herculean efforts to address the complexities of California’s long-running homelessness crisis. So have other state, federal, and local officials around the Golden State.

But while you’ve all made real progress—from instituting the use of hotels as temporary housing to securing billions in new funding—you’re not much closer to ending the crisis than when you first took office. The costs are mounting—impacting the wellbeing of the unhoused, threatening public health and sanitation, and eroding the trust and cohesion we need to solve big problems.

Homelessness has become a white-hot political issue from Los Angeles to Lassen County, dividing too many communities. In a new Berkeley IGS poll, two-in-three voters rate your handling of homelessness as “poor” or “very poor.” And it’s not just you. The people of Californians are telling focus groups that they don’t think any elected official can solve homelessness.

The assembly could provide a model of how Californians of every stripe can hash out their differences, and find better ways forward.

All of the above are reasons why you need—right now—to ask the people of California to solve the problem themselves.

How?

The answer lies in a tool of popular democracy that is little known in California and the U.S., but has become a common method for addressing the thorniest and most desperate problems in other parts of the world. It’s most often used when governments and other civic institutions find themselves unable to address a crisis that has divided society.

The tool is called the citizens assembly.

In essence, it’s a temporary government of regular citizens convened to study a problem, come up with a plan, and then take action to enact it.

Ireland used citizens assemblies to resolve divisive conflicts over abortion and same-sex marriage. Finland employed one to address its most divisive issue—regulation of snowmobiles—and North Macedonia held one to deal with the problem of vaccine hesitancy. And France convened a citizens assembly on energy and climate change after the so-called “yellow vest” protests revealed bitter disagreement over climate policies.

While citizens assemblies are little known here, they aren’t entirely novel. Petaluma has been contemplating a form of citizens assembly, a policy jury, to determine the future of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds property. Not long ago, your columnist proposed an international citizens assembly to help govern the complex series of crises at the U.S.-Mexico border.

How might such a process be applied to homelessness in California?

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To be effective both legally and practically, the California Citizens Assembly on Homelessness would need official authorization from both you and the legislature. Such an assembly would consist of California residents chosen by lot from a pool of everyday people—but through a process designed to ensure the body’s membership is representative of the state in geography, race, ethnicity, political party, and gender.

It would be wise to have one population overrepresented in such an assembly: those whose lives will be most affected by its decision making. While getting elected to the legislature without a permanent address is nearly impossible, one democratic virtue of the citizens assembly is that it could specifically include a significant plurality of people who are currently unhoused, or have experienced homelessness in recent years.

The citizens assembly would also need power—including the right to subpoena witnesses. And it must have a budget large enough to bring in technical experts to help the citizens, both in understanding homelessness and in organizing the assembly itself. The Committee for Greater Los Angeles and the Weingart Foundation, which recently conducted extensive focus groups on homelessness with Angelenos, would be natural allies in organizing such an assembly.

Most of all, the assembly must have the authority to turn its ideas and recommendations into laws and constitutional amendments. You should make sure that any laws proposed by the assembly will be automatically introduced in the legislature, and that any constitutional measures proposed by the assembly will automatically be placed on the statewide ballot.

The mechanics of such an assembly might sound complicated to you, governor. The people who organize these things might make your head swim when they talk about details—geeking out, say, over the notion that functionally, a citizens assembly is really two assemblies: one group of citizens to study the issue and create an agenda for change, and a second group to draft the actual proposals, laws, and ballot measures.

Critics will dismiss the assembly not only as too complex, but also as too novel, and too multi-faceted. They’ll urge you to keep the homelessness portfolio in your own hands, to call special legislative sessions, or to draft new funding or ballot measures yourself.

Don’t let them rattle you.

And don’t let them tell you that everyday Californians don’t understand homelessness. At this point, homelessness is so prevalent that public knowledge of, and experience with, the problem is deep. Which makes this an ideal case for a citizens assembly.

If the legislature balks at funding such an assembly, I suspect you’ll find that California’s philanthropic community would be willing to step up. And many of our major public universities, having pledged to deal with homelessness under the rubric of social justice and community embeddedness, are likely to provide experts, technology, and students for such an enterprise.

Indeed, the best case for a citizens assembly is that it would galvanize Californians, drawing widespread attention and creating a common statewide forum for figuring out homelessness.

Right now, our homelessness responses are divided—by local jurisdictions, by a set of overlapping state programs, and by political campaigns that see homelessness as a wedge issue. A citizens assembly could bridge those divides and be a unifying force.

And since the assembly would gather in public—both online and in person (be sure to reserve a building big enough to contain the audience that might want to watch the proceedings)—it could provide a model of how, in polarized times, Californians of every stripe can hash out their differences, and find better ways forward.

Yes, it’s possible that the assembly would fail. But that would leave California no worse off than it is right now. And if the state convened a citizens assembly, and that body made a huge impact on the homelessness crisis, California would become a true national leader on housing the unhoused.

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And on democracy itself.

Joe Mathews
Zócalo