The Dollars and Cents of Compassion

Supes Embrace 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness

by Nick Welsh

It was all about dollars and cents and very little Good
Samaritan sentiment early Tuesday afternoon as the county
supervisors unanimously approved a new plan its authors boldly
claim will end chronic homelessness countywide in the next 10
years. The linchpin of the plan is to first get the chronically
homeless into housing; then bombard them with social services,
detox treatment, mental healthcare, and job training.

Proponents of this “housing first” approach acknowledge it is
very expensive. But, they say, it’s not nearly as extravagantly
expensive — and wasteful — as maintaining the status quo. Currently
the county spends at least $36 million a year providing homeless
services in a disjointed, uncoordinated, shotgun fashion. Santa
Barbara City Councilmember Helene Schneider, co-chair of the task
force, estimated that the 900 hard-core homeless — of the 6,100
people who find themselves without homes in the course of a
year — accounted for roughly half that expense. The county’s ad hoc
homeless services czar Roger Heroux estimated that in the next 10
years the county will spend half a billion dollars — “That’s with a
‘b’,” he said — as a relatively small population of chronically
homeless endlessly rotate between the county jail, the streets, and
the emergency room.

In other cities, the numbers are even more dramatic. According
to Ed Cabrera, regional director of the U.S. Interagency Council on
Homelessness for the Bush White House, just 15 homeless people rang
up $3 million worth of emergency room visits in San Diego over an
18-month period. In Boston, 115 homeless generated $18 million
worth of visits over five years. Cabrera was aiming for the
supervisors’ bottom line, not their heart strings. Heroux aimed for
both. “No child has said, ‘I want to be a homeless person when I
grow up,’” he said. “We have to do something.”

Under the new plan, homeless outreach workers would be trained
professionals, not overly empathetic outreach workers straight out
of college. Such an approach, he vowed, would deploy “the best
practices,” establish “quantifiable benchmarks,” and ultimately be
“results-oriented.” The plan is to target the chronically homeless
before they get that way — identify them as they’re released from
jails, mental institutions, and foster homes; make sure they have
short-term housing and whatever treatment they need. Trained social
workers will hit the streets, connecting people with drug rehab
treatment, mental-health services, and basic housing.

Ultimately the plan will rise and fall on the availability of
housing. It sets the goal at 500 beds in the first five years,
1,250 in the next 10. Given the high cost of land and
construction — coupled with the inevitability of neighborhood
opposition — that could be difficult to achieve. The necessary
first step, said Schneider, is to set up a private nonprofit
organization charged with making the vision come to pass. To hire a
fundraiser and program director for three years and get the project
off the ground, Schneider estimated it will cost about $1 million.
She said several foundations have already expressed interest in
this. She and her fellow 10-year planners are not asking the county
for a dime right now but will focus on corporate donors and
foundations to get off the ground. After that, local governments
will be asked to help. But, she said, they can save vast sums — and
have more effective results — by participating.

The most essential ingredient in the plan’s success, concluded
Ed Cabrera, is political will. “The key to getting the homeless off
the streets is political will.” Exactly what “political will” the
supervisors expressed Tuesday has yet to be seen. For now, however,
the supervisors blessed it with their unanimous endorsement, though
Supervisor Brooks Firestone expressed misgivings about the plan’s
lack of financial specificity.

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