Bramson: When a virus needs a home
This file photo shows bus benches in Los Angeles that include bars designed to deter homeless people from sleeping on the seats. Photo courtesy of Curbed Los Angeles/Getty Images.

What would it be like if we responded to homelessness like a disaster?

I’ve heard this question many times over the years. The implication being that while the word “crisis” is thrown around pretty liberally these days when we talk about the conditions for people on our streets, we rarely act with the same mobilized sense of urgency seen after earthquakes, floods and tornadoes for those who need our help the most.

The current disaster, however, is creating a new paradigm. With the need for physical distancing, isolation, non-congregate housing and a thousand other terms now firmly entrenched in the parlance of our times, a person’s homelessness has become a chink in our community’s collective armor. If we can’t find safe places for the most vulnerable people to be, the road to recovery for us all seems uncertain at best.

Fortunately, thanks to some great leadership, advocacy and countless hours of hard work, we’re getting a peek inside what can be done when everyone is working together.

At the local level, the county of Santa Clara and the city of San Jose have led the charge. Together, the two agencies have worked to open hundreds of new shelter beds over the past few weeks, secured hotel rooms for fragile and sick individuals in need of additional care, and deployed mobile hygiene sanitation for all those still not inside. Shelters are now open 24/7, State trailers are being refurbished for temporary housing, and several new bridge housing communities may be on the way.

Still, there are many people suffering and afraid of the unknown. So, dedicated members of our community – backpack doctors, non-profit workers, advocates, and volunteers – have gone out to the encampments themselves, working with the government to get critical information and basic needs supplies to many folks who still might not totally know what’s going on or where to get help.

As a result of these herculean efforts, every homeless person who has tested positive for COVID-19 is now housed, receiving the medical care and support they need. And many other medically fragile residents will at least have the shelter they need soon.

With a massive economic crisis underway, you have to wonder where do we go from here?

The federal government, usually late to the party these days, is throwing some pretty significant funding out. The fed’s stimulus package included $4B for emergency solutions grants. For some context, a similar response to the great recession resulted in $1.5B and the government put out a total of $2.8B for all homeless assistance programs last year. It’s big new money, don’t get me wrong, but we need lasting investments in permanent solutions, as the challenges we’re seeing right now won’t be going away anytime soon.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey might actually be one of the ways that we can work on two crises at once. The effort is helping to secure 15,000 hotel rooms statewide, while leveraging other federal funding from FEMA and HUD to offset the operations costs. It’s a great model to create immediate capacity, but what if we were able to hold these rooms (and maybe even more) for the long-term? We could have local non-profit operators run the sites, take advantage of diverse funding partnerships, and create overnight opportunity to get thousands of people into housing now.

This is only one model, of course, and it obviously isn’t a panacea. And the 16-hour, 7 day work weeks that many of our dedicated public servants are putting in right now aren’t sustainable. But, if we take some serious time to think about everything that’s been accomplished in this difficult period, perhaps we can continue to build on a real recovery effort that is something more than just getting over this damn virus.

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 rbramson@sbcglobal.net or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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