When otherwise sane elected officials throughout the South Coast eagerly announced a few months back that they were embarking on a “10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness,” we assumed the worst. Having known some of the chronically homeless during the past 20 or so years — and having watched generations of supervisors and city councilmembers grapple with the problem — we were fairly confident that even the best laid plans could not help, let alone end, such an intractable situation. Our skepticism was intensified by the fact that these 10-Year Plan approaches originated with the Bush administration, the same brain trust that has hacked affordable housing programs so severely. The waiting list for such apartments is 60 months in Santa Barbara. Little wonder that we initially thought the whole idea would amount to nothing more than a cynical feel-good photo opportunity.
We may have jumped the gun. Propelling the 10-Year Plan craze is the realization that most homeless programs have become revolving doors — as expensive as they are ineffective — shuttling the chronically homeless from our streets, to our jails, to our emergency rooms, and back to our streets again.
In S.B. County, the numbers are startling. Based on a new study just released by former County Health Director Roger Heroux, Santa Barbara County, its cities, and its non-profits spend $36 million per year dealing with the homeless in one way or another. Eight million of that is spent each year on the county’s biggest homeless shelters. Another $4.7 million is spent keeping about 150 homeless men and women behind bars at the county jail at any given time. We don’t know what crimes these people have committed. Given that jail accommodations cost $86 a night, we strongly suspect that the community would be better served if many such inmates were housed in detox facilities — or receiving mental health treatment — instead. That would go a long way toward relieving the overcrowding problem now plaguing the county jail. The five county departments that comprise Santa Barbara’s official safety net spend about $6 million per year on homeless services. The City of Santa Barbara spends another $6 million. That doesn’t include the nearly $8 million it costs Cottage Hospital, Marian Medical Center, and the Lompoc District Hospital combined to treat homeless in their emergency rooms.
Clearly, we’re not stingy. And despite their dismal circumstances, many homeless people are helped. But last year, 39 homeless people died in the City of Santa Barbara alone, done in by the ravages of street life, the demons of mental illness, and the scourge of addiction. Given that roughly one-tenth of the homeless population consumes about 50 percent of the available resources, we must agree that we should reexamine how we are spending our money. When the county supervisors voted Tuesday to lure Roger Heroux out of retirement, hiring him for one year to knock down professional “silos” separating county departments now confronting different aspects of the same problem, we’d say that’s a good start. Especially since his salary is coming from the budgets of five of those departments, including the sheriff’s office.
Despite our skepticism about 10-year plans in general — and plans “to end chronic homelessness,” in particular — we find ourselves cautiously optimistic that this latest planning process, just now getting underway, can yield meaningful change. One particularly promising new approach is a model used effectively in other cities.
Called “housing first,” it calls for creating new housing to replace the hundreds of cheap hotel and motel rooms lost to gentrification during the past 15 years. But instead of flop houses and eyesores, these new units will be staffed with social service professionals whose aim is to get as many people permanently off the street as possible. And when poor, or alcoholic, or mentally ill people are no longer living on the streets, but living in decent conditions with therapeutic help available, then they will no longer be homeless. Maybe this is just a bureaucratic fad masquerading as a new solution. But given the vast sums of cash we’re spending right now — and the results we’re not getting — maybe it is time to try something new. — Nick Welsh, Executive Editor