Our “E’ville Voices” guest blogger series was created to net a broader range of voices about our city in flux and initiate dialogue through opinion & conversation. Joining our guest blogger series is Park Avenue District and Besler building resident John Bauters. John currently serves on the City’s Housing Committee and the Emery Unified School District’s Measure “K” Parcel Tax Oversight Committee. John is the Policy Director at Housing California, the state’s leading non-profit legislative advocacy organization on policy that impacts housing affordability and homelessness.
The above council video includes a February 3rd presentation by City Housing Coordinator Catherine Firpo on the City’s proposed Homeless Strategy that includes input by Mr. Bauters.
HOMELESSNESS AND HOUSING FIRST
A TINY WINDOW INTO THE AMERICAN HISTORY OF HOMELESSNESS
Homelessness, and its history in the United States, is a largely untold story. To understand the origins of homelessness, one need not look much farther than the high school civic book. Colonial expansion was wrought with land skirmishes that disenfranchised settlers of land and home. The end of the Civil War and the subsequent institutionalization of racism in things like the New Deal’s lending programs resulted in millions of African-Americans from being locked out of home ownership opportunities. Broken promises with Native American tribes spurned the creation of reservations that offered no housing or resources. The economic fallout of the Great Depression, followed by the subsequent and insufficient regulation of the market has inequitably punished lower-income and working families for a century. Perverse regulations in the early administration of Social Security and other institutionalized welfare programs – even if unintentionally racist – disproportionately and adversely affected women and non-white families, blocking millions of families from building wealth and transferring assets between generations – a key predictor of housing stability. The obliteration of HUD funding and rescission of America’s modest safety net programs in the 1980’s removed some of the last protections that kept poor, working families from the streets. Today, the ever-growing gap in wage earnings, the lost bargaining power of workers for things like health coverage and daycare, and the lack of investment in affordable housing exacerbate America’s ever-growing homelessness problem.
The point-in-time, or “PIT” count, which takes places annually during the last week of January, is an attempt to estimate the number of people who experience homelessness on a given night in the United States. According to HUD’s most recent report on homelessness, there are nearly 600,000 people in the United States who fit the federal definition of homelessness. The federal definition of homelessness, encoded in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, is rather prescriptive. Advocates have long complained that PIT counts undercount children and youth, fail to include people who are marginally housed (i.e. living on a friend’s couch or in a relative’s basement because they lack the resources to house themselves) and that the process of collecting the data is inconsistently administered across jurisdictions. Although admittedly imperfect, PIT counts offer us a general sense of what homelessness looks like in the United States and is one of the few tools policy experts and advocates have for identifying gaps in existing policy and practices that would help reduce the number of people living without access to housing.
THE CALIFORNIAN REALITY
California holds several dubious distinctions related to homelessness. Not only do more than 20% of the people who experience homelessness in the United States reside here (by contrast, California is home to 12% of the general population, which means our homelessness rate exceeds our residential rate when compared with the national average), but we also have the largest number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness as well.
According to the most recent Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) issued by HUD in October 2014, 62.7% of those experiencing homelessness in California have no access to shelter of any kind.
Even worse, on a local level, nearby San Jose and Santa Clara County have the highest rates of people living without shelter nationally.
California is also home to the highest number of veterans who experience homelessness, with approximately 24% of all homeless veterans living here in California. And perhaps worst, 13,709 unaccompanied homeless children and youth live in California. These children are often victims of sex trafficking and other abuses, which helps explain why California also has the dubious distinction of being a leader in that category as well.
THE BIG PICTURE: A STEP TOWARD SOLUTIONS
For years, advocates, elected officials and communities have fought over how to address the problem of homelessness and the ancillary problems that come from having large numbers of unsheltered people in a community. The Bay Area and Emeryville are not immune to these challenges. Developing solutions for the complex problem that homelessness presents is as much a quest to solve for the social and fiscal problems affecting individuals and families in our society as it is a quest to create communities that are more livable, affordable, hospitable and humane.
It might surprise some that the solution to homelessness, in its most basic conceptual form, is quite simple: house people.
Yes, house them.
For decades, the federal government, local communities, funders and even homeless service providers have utilized a carrot and stick approach to solving homelessness: “If you get treatment for your mental illness, we will be able to provide you with housing assistance.” “In order for us to offer you a bed in our shelter, you must be clean and sober for 30 days.” “We can only offer housing subsidies to people who have already obtained some form of employment.”
This approach is significantly flawed. The chances that a person with a serious mental illness can be compliant with medication or treatment in the absence of intensive care or therapy while trying to survive on the street is infinitesimally small. People who suffer from addiction and substance use disorders have psychological and physiological cravings that are abetted by being left among the social environment that enables their addiction to persist, making self-induced sobriety on the streets as unlikely as winning the lottery for most. And the ability to apply for work, be rested for work, prepare for work and physically get to work is minimal when you lack a warm, safe and stable place to sleep each night.
The proper approach and the only successful solution to homelessness require embracing a “housing first” model. Studies show that people who are offered housing assistance find employment faster, have fewer health issues, respond better to mental health and substance use treatment and experience fewer encounters with law enforcement. If the thought of government financing housing for the homeless bothers you, let’s examine how much it really costs us:
A study on the cost of chronic homelessness by the Massachusetts Home and Healthy for Good Program found that the average cost for measured services (Medicaid costs, emergency shelter, law enforcement/incarceration) per person annually was $33,190. After employing a Housing First approach by housing the chronically homeless individual and providing wrap around supports, the same cost for those measured services fell to an average of $8,603. When you add back in the affirmative cost of providing comprehensive housing and supportive services to help make the program work, at a cost of $15,468 per tenant, the total return on investment to the state and local governments was an average of $9,118 per person.
What is missing from this analysis is something that doesn’t get crunched in numbers: social outcomes. Fewer people rely on hospitals and emergency services, scarce shelter beds become accessible to others when people in them become housed, the number of people living unsheltered drops, and the reduced demand for law enforcement and correctional services all make communities more livable.
In fact, if you want any more simple proof about how the lives of people who experience chronic homelessness are improved by housing them, look no further than Project 25. San Diego decided to house 35 chronically homeless individuals who were among the highest consumers of state and local emergency services and provide them with supportive services under a Housing First approach. The results were dramatic, to say the least. In the 12 months prior to the project, those 35 individuals alone spent a whopping total of 1,505 days in hospital care. Comparatively, two years into the program, that rate is down to 568, a reduction of 64%. Other communities like Charlotte, North Carolina and Salt Lake City, Utah have already paved the path with success.
HOUSING AS HEALTH
Housing is a social determinant for public health and healthy communities. I had the pleasure of being a panelist at a recent convening held by the Alameda County Department of Senior Services on how housing improves health outcomes, which in turn makes communities not only more healthy, but safer. Aging and senior services are looking at ways to invest in solutions for people that allow them to age in place as opposed to receive institutionalized or nursing home care, which are far more expensive and lower the social health of seniors by removing them from their homes. Health officials and senior advocates already see that improving the quality, affordability and accessibility of housing improves health outcomes. So why stop there?
People who experience chronic homelessness have some of the greatest unmet needs and are subject to the most dangerous of health risks. Their lack of shelter and services decreases the affordability of general services we all share in as residents of the community and the lack of resources designed to meet their basic human needs decreases the livability of our community. If you want to learn more about how housing is a social determinant for health, read this white paper by the Corporation for Supportive Housing, one of the leading advocacy groups for supportive housing and a partner of mine in advocating for a “Housing First” approach to homelessness.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Funding the development of affordable, permanent, supportive housing is the single-best long-term solution to homelessness. Federal cuts to HUD due to sequestration, uninspiring leadership from Governor Brown on this issue at the state level and a lack of political will to fund housing solutions by a handful of legislators to address this issue leaves some of the problem-solving to local and regional groups. The problem cannot be resolved by a single local government alone. However, we can do our part. I ascribe to a simple philosophy: “Think globally, act locally.” Promoting affordable development and recognizing that solutions for people living in deep poverty or experiencing homelessness are not going to be solved by naïve notions of achieving affordability through simple “supply and demand” economics are major steps. We must model local solutions for homelessness in such a way that breaks us from our untenable trajectory. Good social policy and good fiscal policy are not mutually exclusive. Providing a place for the housing first approach in the way we develop going forward, investing in permanent supportive housing and meeting the needs of everyone who calls Emeryville “home” are all steps toward creating a more livable, just community.
Further Reading & Resources
MHSA Home & Healthy for Good Progress January 2015 Report [PDF]
Housing is the Best Medicine [PDF]
San Diego Housing Commission Partnership: Project 25 [PDF]
Approaches for Ending Chronic Homelessness in California [PDF]
A profile of housing and health among older Americans [PDF]
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act [PDF]