A crisis demands immediate action, but lasting change takes time.
In some ways, this sentiment has managed to become the main battleground in the question of how to address the issue of modern homelessness in our communities. With roughly 114,000 people homeless in California – and about 70 percent of that population unsheltered – the challenge is that we’re experiencing it everywhere and the impacts are impossible to ignore.
People are rightly asking their elected officials what they’re doing to immediately address this crisis, but also wanting the solution to stick in the long-term.
Historically, the “now-ness” ends up dominating the dialogue and headlines. People living on the streets, exposed to the elements and at a much greater risk of illness, violence or even death in need of a safe place to go tonight. Moreover, the trash along our roads and waterways, the disruption to our businesses and the general sense of declining safety in our neighborhoods has led to more than one crowded town hall meeting with loud and angry residents.
In the face of such pressures, the urgency for action has, more often than not, become the sole guiding principle for policy and programming.
Until recently, the primary response to this critical need has mainly been just getting people out of sight of the ever-watchful public eye, largely carried out through some form of temporary shelter.
Two hots and a cot. Lots of rules. Barely any personal space or security. Difficult to site and build. Expensive to operate. And absolutely horrible long-term outcomes for the people served, if they’re not connected to more evidence-based solutions.
Nationally, less than 20 percent of people accessing emergency shelter exit to permanent housing destinations.
In fact, this overreliance on stopgap measures in the past has contributed significantly to the persistent and worsening problems we see today. From Hoovervilles to tiny homes, we have a rich history of quickly putting on tourniquets, when there are better ways to stop the bleeding without losing the limb.
On the other hand, it is also hard to argue against a place of refuge and safety to escape the cold, the rain and all of the other horrors of sleeping outside. In his inaugural 2019 State of the State address, Gov. Gavin Newsom described the landscape perfectly: “At the end of the day, shelter solves sleep, but permanent housing and supportive services solves homelessness.”
The not-so-subtle subtext here is that if you solve homelessness, sleep won’t be much of an issue anymore. Ending, not managing, homelessness makes a lot of sense.
That rhetoric has been sticking lately, too. Cities throughout the state have now adopted Housing First principles, with the goal of getting people into a real home as the primary driver. Voters in 2016 approved Santa Clara County’s Measure A and California Propositions 1 and 2 in 2018, creating billions of dollars in funding for permanent housing solutions.
In the next five years, thousands of people without a place to call home in Santa Clara County will move into beautiful new apartments with a host of amenities and supportive services.
But what do we do until then?
What we shouldn’t do is redirect permanent housing resources to put a band-aid on the problem. Communities like San Diego have already gone that route, spending millions of precious housing dollars on mass shelters that just aren’t solving anything.
We also shouldn’t waste political capital fighting for these types of programs, when we know it won’t contribute to real change. Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Cruz and many others have recently gone this route, burning time, money and whatever good will existed in the community through an endless torrent of brutal public hearings and community meetings.
So, without diverting time or money from existing effective interventions, we need more low-barrier, cost effective options to help people quickly.
Locally, we’re seeing some good leadership around these concepts. The city of San Jose’s new safe parking ordinance, paired with its existing assembly use shelter law, allows businesses, places of worship and other organizations to use their land, facilities and volunteers to provide safe, welcoming places to sleep. Similarly, the overnight warming locations at libraries and community centers are excellent examples of how existing public spaces can be used for the benefit of its most vulnerable citizens.
Cities throughout the region can adopt similar programs, utilizing existing resources without having to sacrifice too much time or effort in the process.
It’s not an either-or proposition of helping people now or later, but without remaining focused on our vision for the future, one night of sleep is all we will ever get.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.