Roberts: Housing first or equity first?
A homeless man sits on the corner of 3rd and Santa Clara Street in downtown San Jose. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

Twenty years ago, the solution to homelessness seemed to be so simple.

People who found themselves homeless would come to our agency in need of a bed. We would place them in a transitional housing program for a few months while helping them find a new job. Their only commitment was to adhere to a curfew, stay sober and do some chores.

For many people, this simple solution — a bed and job training — worked.

But ten years later, most of us realized that this “simple” solution did not resolve the complicated issues that caused homelessness for a majority of people. A bed didn’t resolve severe mental health or substance abuse issues. Curfew or chores didn’t keep people off the streets.

Back then, homelessness increased because the solutions were not working. So a whole new movement, called Housing First, was created. It, too, was simple: place a person without a home into an apartment, and surround them with services. No more transitional housing, no curfews, no chores, no hoops to jump through before a person “earns” their keys to their home. Just give a person a home.

For many people, this simple solution — a new home — worked.

In the past 10-plus years, the number of people who were homeless across our country was reduced by 100,000. Nearly every city and county in America embraced this simple solution of prioritizing housing first. Although the decline in homelessness was slow, it was going in the right direction.

But today, statistics on homelessness shatter the simplicity of solely depending on housing first to end homelessness. The U.S. Census revealed that 6.5% of Californians identify as black or African American, but they account for almost 40% of the state’s homeless population.

In Santa Clara County, Destination: Home published a Racial Equity Report in January 2020 that revealed black/African Americans are disproportionately represented in the homeless population (16.9%) compared to their numbers in the general population (2.5%).

Housing first worked to help many people end their homelessness — except for black Americans. The “simple” solution of housing first did not resolve the complicated issue of racial inequity and homelessness.

Four months after this report was made public, the streets of America were, and still are, inundated with protesters marching for racial equity.

Today, do we dare call the scourge of homelessness in America a racial issue?

A few days after George Floyd was murdered, the agency that I lead published a formal statement against racism, and in support of those who were marching peacefully. Although most of our agency supporters thanked us for that statement, a handful sent angry emails or phone calls vehemently opposing our response. These were not angry racist responses, but rather they were long-term supporters who wanted their resources to go toward services and housing, not political advocacy.

Later, our board and staff leadership had numerous heart-to-heart video conference calls. We had to answer: are we just a homeless service and housing agency, or are we becoming a political advocacy group, too? And, if so, should we become that?

I wonder how many other social service nonprofit organizations struggled with the same questions during these difficult times?

We came to the conclusion that we would not veer away from our mission of ending homelessness for people. We would continue to provide services and build housing for people struggling with homelessness.

However, providing only services and housing is not enough, if racial discrimination is causing more and more people of color, and particularly black Americans, to become homeless on our streets.

So our agency also concluded that we would work toward ending systemic barriers that are causing homelessness. That also means working toward ending racial inequity. Because, frankly, that is what ending homelessness really means.

After our country’s decades of creating solutions to ending homelessness — from transitional housing and employment programs, to housing first — could the next (and final?) solution toward ending homelessness be working toward racial equity?

Are we going to transition from housing first to equity first?

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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