Even as Gov. Gavin Newsom boasts of California’s economic resurgence after the COVID-19 lockdowns, the tens of thousands of Californians living on the streets offer a searing counterpoint — a nagging reminder of the human suffering that has become a central focus of the long-shot candidates hoping to deny the Democratic governor a second term in November.

So far, Newsom holds the upper hand, thanks to the spotlight afforded to an incumbent and a $25-million reelection war chest that could easily swamp his challengers. But those advantages could be diminished if the sight of ever-growing encampments leaves voters skeptical that the governor has made any significant progress to alleviate the state’s homelessness crisis, or at least has prevented it from growing worse.

Two of Newsom’s most vocal challengers — Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle of Bieber in Lassen County and Bay Area energy and homeless policy activist Michael Shellenberger, a Democrat turned independent — hope to tap into festering voter anger over homelessness, crime and other quality-of-life issues as a way to overcome Newsom’s enormous political advantages.

Shellenberger blames California’s predicament on generous, no-strings-attached programs championed by the Newsom administration and liberal leaders of the state’s largest cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. Tent cities have turned into drug dens, he said, and housing is being provided to people regardless of whether they seek treatment for addiction or mental illness.

“The reason we have so many homeless people is because we spend so much money on homelessness,” said Shellenberger. “That’s how you created the problem. You advertise to every homeless drug addict and mentally ill person in the United States that they’re going to get a free home in Venice Beach and, if not, then they can just stay on Venice Beach and [its] open drug scene.”