Roberts: An ounce of homeless prevention is worth a pound of cure

Years ago, the cutting-edge approach toward solving homelessness was a shelter bed and a transitional program that helped people become self-sufficient.

Back then, the agency I run housed hundreds of people with this approach. People would come to us who were unemployed, or struggling with emotional issues, or simply burned bridges at home, and needed a temporary place to live. We helped stabilize their lives and helped them find work. We called it “a hand up, not a hand out.”

At the time, this transitional housing approach worked for the people who were temporarily homeless. But for people struggling with significant mental health or addiction issues, these shelter programs were not designed or staffed to meet their needs.

Despite the success of shelter programs, thousands of people still ended up on the streets. This led to a dramatic paradigm shift among the homeless shelter and housing system.

Experts discovered that the only way to successfully meet the needs of people who were chronically homeless and struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues was to provide them with a home — an apartment — and support them with qualified clinical workers who could help people overcome their health issues. We call this “housing first.”

Housing First was designed to reach those thousands of people who failed in the shelter system or were turned away from programs. A Housing First mentality shifted funding resources toward this new direction and redirected programs from temporary housing to providing permanent homes.

Seeing the most chronically homeless individuals moving into apartments instilled hope into a homeless system that seemed to be floundering. In fact, pilot Housing First programs were so successful that the federal government encouraged hundreds of cities around the country to create plans to end their local homelessness within ten years.

I remember being a part of several “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness” committees across the state, discussing what we would all do when homelessness ended. In a strategic planning session with the Board of Directors of the agency I run, we were was so hopeful that we discussed perhaps changing our mission from ending homelessness to ending poverty.

That was 15 years ago. And clearly, our country did not end homelessness. Today, most cities across California are struggling with a ballooning homeless population.

Ironically, annual homeless counts around the state show that thousands and thousands of people have been housed. In Santa Clara County, the average annual housing placement rate in 2017 was just over 2,000 people housed, yet, the homeless population increased. Similarly, the county of Los Angeles moved 16,519 people into homes in 2017, yet the number of people homeless increased slightly.

In other words, jurisdictions were successfully housing people with a Housing First approach but were unable to stop the flow of new people becoming homeless — one step forward, and two steps back.

Today, leaders across the state are now seeing that Housing First alone will not end homelessness. Instead we need to couple Housing First with a robust homelessness prevention program. Helping individuals and families stay in their own apartments is much more effective than just waiting for them to become homeless and then helping them get re-housed.

Pay for a couple of months rent to prevent someone (or a family) from being evicted? Or pay for temporary housing, case management and new housing assistance after a person becomes homeless?

The county of Santa Clara and the city of San Jose have already embraced this prevention paradigm.

Through a homeless prevention program led by Destination: Home and a group of community organizations, more than 500 families vulnerable of becoming homeless did not end up on the streets. The city of San Jose also recently approved its own prevention program.

The hope is that when cities or counties perform future homeless counts, the results will show that when 1,000 people are housed, the number of people on the streets is also reduced by 1,000. One step forward, and then another step. Followed by another, and another.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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