Bramson: The bridge from shelter to home
The Columbus Park homeless camp in San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

In the midst of a crisis that has left thousands of people without a home in our community, I have to admit the recent discussions about homelessness seem a bit odd to me.

Instead of keeping up the spirit of collaboration that’s housed more than 20,000 people over the past several years, some of us have started to divide. What’s worse is that many are also disregarding data, attacking evidence-based approaches, and generally fumbling around for the cheapest and fastest way to end a situation that is the direct result of decades of disinvestment.

But I guess that’s where we are today. With the unhoused population more visible than ever, public concern reaching an all-time high, and a vast fog of disinformation spreading by the minute about what’s really being done locally, we’re headed into a dangerous territory where rhetoric outweighs fact and popular opinion shouts down reason.

Take the modular housing sites that have opened up throughout San Jose. Over the past two years, the city and the county have built hundreds of beds of new emergency and interim housing at these locations. And there’s more on the way with at least two additional communities in the works. These projects utilized the red-tape busting exemptions of the recent pandemic to get sites opened quickly and will provide high-quality shelter for years to come.

Our Community Plan to End Homelessness calls for this type of a robust shelter expansion to quickly eliminate suffering of people living outside, so we’re on the right track and there’s a mandate to do even more of this important work in the future.

Let’s be clear: this is a win. We should celebrate every new bed as an addition to a crisis response system that is long overdue. Unfortunately, there’s some push to make it THE answer we’ve all been waiting for. And I can tell you from decades of doing this work, there is no silver bullet here or anywhere else. So be careful, anyone claiming to have it all figured out is just about to sell you some magic beans.

Adding more emergency shelter and interim housing alone simply isn’t the solution. Many places across the country from New York to Seattle have already spent years going down this path only to come to the same conclusion: at the end of the day, you need to provide permanent homes if you want to end homelessness.

Further, despite some arguments to the contrary, all forms of emergency shelter and interim housing end up being much more expensive over time. While you might save upfront on construction costs, the very temporary nature of shelter requires more staffing to run the programs, while also lacking any of the operating income you would get from tenants paying rent. Further, outside of once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunities like the state’s Project Homekey — which San Jose has done an incredible job of accessing — there is virtually no other outside sources to leverage, so the costs are borne almost exclusively at the local level. To top this all off, you still need a throughput to a permanent housing destination if you want to program work.

All of that said, I do believe this is and should continue to be a part of a larger strategy that has the end goal of getting people into permanent, affordable homes. But when we compare shelter to housing — exaggerating the costs and time associated with one to make the other look more enticing — we do a disservice to our entire community and run the risk of making an entirely avoidable and ultimately devastating misstep that so many other cities have already made before us.

That’s why it’s so gratifying to see the sensible spending plan that San Jose’s housing staff will be presenting to the City Council this Tuesday. The memo lays out a thoughtful compromise as to how 2020 Measure E funds will be distributed to address affordable housing and homelessness going forward. Blending both the importance of permanent, deeply affordable housing production with the reality of more services being needed to keep people in their homes and get others off the streets quickly, the staff plan shows how the resources of Measure E can help us achieve all of our collective goals.

If the council approves this plan, we have to figure out how to bring all of our voices and perspectives together again. That means remaining open, flexible and dynamic in our approach. Every tool in the toolkit will be needed, and we must stop pretending that there’s just one perfect device to get the job done.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating 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.

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