SAN DIEGO — Sporting a bright smile and the polished Super Bowl ring he won as a star NFL player in the late 1980s, Craig McEwen doesn’t fit the archetype of someone teetering on the brink of homelessness.

Evicted from his San Diego County apartment last July, McEwen — who endured repeated concussions during his six seasons in the NFL — scoured housing listings for anything he could afford.

Working as a part-time groundskeeper at a golf course for $15 an hour, his frantic search turned up nothing. So, feeling overwhelmed by rents pushing $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, he made a plan: move into his truck or rent a storage container to live in — an alternative he turned to when he was previously homeless in 2004.

McEwen is hopeful that a massive health care initiative in California offering new, specialized social services will help him get back on his feet. He is one of nearly 145,000 low-income Californians enrolled in CalAIM, an endeavor Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, is spearheading to transform its Medicaid program, called Medi-Cal, into a new kind of safety net that provides housing and other services for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and have complicating conditions like mental illness or chronic disease that can make it difficult to manage life.

California launched the initiative in early 2022, rolling it out quietly, with health insurers and community groups scrambling to provide social services and benefits that fall outside traditional health care. It’s a five-year, $12 billion social experiment that Newsom is betting will eventually cut soaring health care spending in Medi-Cal, the largest Medicaid program in the country with 15.5 million enrollees.

The state is contracting the work to its 23 Medi-Cal managed-care health insurance companies. They are responsible for delivering a slew of new benefits to the most vulnerable enrollees: not only those with housing insecurity, but also people with mental health or addictive disorders; formerly incarcerated people transitioning back to society; seniors and people with disabilities; children in foster care; and Californians who frequent hospital emergency rooms or are admitted often to short-term skilled nursing facilities.

While only a sliver of the state’s Medi-Cal patients are enrolled in CalAIM, tens of thousands of low-income Californians could qualify for the new benefits. They’re eligible for help in finding housing and for paying rental move-in costs like security deposits.

But the help goes beyond housing. The state is also providing the most at-risk patients with intensive case management, alongside pioneering social services — such as healthy home-delivered meals for diabetes patients and mold removal in homes of patients with severe asthma.

Top state health officials say that with such an ambitious program — using Medicaid to help solve homelessness and combat chronic disease — they expected the rollout to be bumpy. After 2026, when the initiative’s funding ends, the state plans to prove the experiment works and permanently adopt the benefits. Meanwhile, other states are closely watching California, hoping to learn from its successes and failures.

“California is a leader, and it’s always experimenting in new and interesting ways,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “What it can do is provide proof of concept, and then this can grow to other states.”

Insurers, in essence, are building a new health care workforce, contracting with nonprofit and for-profit organizations to enroll the most vulnerable — and expensive — Medi-Cal patients. They’re hiring social workers and case managers to find those who rack up extreme health care costs in hospital emergency rooms, nursing homes, prisons, jails, and mental health crisis centers.

As Newsom sees it, the immense investment will pay off for taxpayers. Targeting people cycling in and out of costly institutions will reduce health care spending, he argues, while also helping people get healthy. State health officials say 5% of high-need Medi-Cal patients account for roughly half of all health care spending in the low-income health care program.

The most important currency in pulling off this massive health care experiment is trust. And that is being built on the ground, with community outreach workers scouring hospitals and homeless encampments, for example, to find those eligible for CalAIM.

The most at-risk Medi-Cal patients are being linked to specialized teams deployed under a new entitlement benefit at the heart of the initiative called “enhanced care management.” While other services like covering security deposits are optional, this is not. Health insurers are required to accept people who are most in need and provide a wide range of health and social services.

It can be simple things like arranging an Uber to get to a medical appointment or buying a computer for an enrollee looking for a job. Or purchasing a bike for a low-income kid. But it also involves intensive, one-on-one work that can require case managers to take patients to get an identification card, make nighttime phone calls to ensure patients are taking medications, and hunt down available apartments.

“This is the missing piece, and it’s the hardest work — the most costly work,” Newsom said in an interview with KFF Health News. “People on the streets and sidewalks, they’ve lost trust. They’ve become socially isolated. They’ve lost connection, and so developing that is so foundational.”