The No. 1 reason people experience homelessness in our county and nation is the lack of affordable housing.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “The solution to homelessness is straightforward: housing. By connecting people experiencing homelessness to housing and services, they have a platform from which they can address other areas that may have contributed to their homelessness—such as employment, health and substance abuse.”
To claim, as former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis wrote, that the “root causes for homelessness (are) mental illness, drug addiction and reintegration of the formerly incarcerated” is wrong. Those things are not the root cause of homelessness: the lack of affordable housing is the root cause.
San Jose as well as Santa Clara County have been providing affordable housing and help for people to stay in their homes, yet our unhoused numbers continue to increase. This is not because mental health and addiction issues are driving homelessness, it is because of the economics in our area.
Though we have made inroads in building affordable units, we started far behind and are working to catch up. The economics of our area have led to a lack of affordable housing, too many low paying jobs, many people with limited/fixed incomes, all of which are leading factors which contribute to people becoming unhoused.
The National Law Center On Homelessness & Poverty states: “Insufficient income and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness.”
In the 2019 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, the No. 1 reason people reported why they became unhoused is the loss of a job (30%). The reasons they cannot get permanent housing is they cannot afford rent (66%), there is no housing available (40%) or they have no job or income (56%). Alcohol and drug use accounts for 22% of the primary events or conditions that led to homelessness, which means 78% of those currently unhoused had events other than drugs/alcohol which led to their homelessness.
Providing mental health and addiction services without providing affordable permanent housing is not an answer, it is insanity. Treating people who are currently housed for mental health and addiction issues can be successful if the person is helped to stay in their current housing while getting services. But once someone is unhoused, getting them back into housing with mental health and addiction services is the most successful way to keep them housed.
Imagine that you are unhoused. You live in a tent. You have no electricity, no water, no way to keep your belongings or person safe. Your tent provides little to no protection from the heat of the summer, smoke from fires or the cold of winter. Vermin can easily invade your tent. Each day to survive you must find food, a place to go to the bathroom, a place to clean yourself, all while taking your most important items with you as you cannot leave anything in your unsecured tent.
Providing mental health and addiction services will not change that which is currently the No. 1 cause making your mental health and addiction worse: the lack of a permanent home, the lack of stability, the lack of dignity a permanent home provides.
Khamis’ list has affordable housing at No. 5, when in fact the lack of affordable housing is the No. 1 reason people are not housed. His list is a myriad of actions which in conjunction with affordable housing have some substance, however without affordable housing being the No. 1 priority Khamis’ list falls far short of solving our homelessness issue.
His list is detrimental to solving homelessness if the root cause, lack of affordable housing, is not addressed as the first item. Further, every element he listed cannot be successfully implemented if there is no affordable housing provided along with those services.
If providing permanent supportive and affordable housing is not a priority, we are not going to see changes to the number of people who are currently living on our streets.
This is what Santa Clara County must do to have a successful impact on homelessness: Keep people who are already housed in their homes and find ways to build affordable housing with supportive services faster and cheaper. Provide mental health and addiction services that include permanent supportive housing when an individual is ready to live independently.
We have some of the brightest minds in the world living in our area. Together we can solve homelessness if we focus on the root cause: the lack of affordable housing.
Jacqueline Heffner has lived in the Bay Area all of her life. She is the founder/first president of the Rosemary Gardens Neighborhood Association, has served on the San Jose Mobile Home Commission and recently founded San Jose Residents for Housing Solutions. She currently lives in South San Jose with her husband, two children and three cats.