Housing the Homeless

Compassionate — and Cheaper, Too

I was driving downtown a while back when I heard a radio show about a relevant topic. The headline was this: Utah had virtually eliminated homelessness.

A program called Housing First was credited with much of the success. And credit for its creation goes to Sam Tsemberis, a psychologist who was born in Greece, grew up in Montreal, and moved to New York City for a job involving outreach for the mentally ill. There he came up with a simple idea: To end homelessness, put people in housing.

That may sound almost insultingly simplistic for such a complex problem, but it’s worked in states and cities all over the country following the basic idea of curing the homelessness first, curing the person later. Along the way, officials, often fiscally conservative, had to be convinced. And one of the most persuasive aspects, surprisingly, was that it made fiscal sense. Said Gordon Walker, Utah’s director of housing and community development in a May 2015 Washington Post story, “It was costing us in state services, health-care costs, jail time, police time, about $20,000 person. Now we spend $12,000 per person.”

“In Housing First, clients pay $50 a month or 30% of their income, whichever is more,” reported a May 2015 story in the L.A. Times, and quoted Walker as saying, “It’s not just more compassionate — it’s cheaper.”

The numbers were even more drastic in New York City, where Tsemberis began his efforts in 1992 with a program called Pathways to Housing. “ … New York City was dropping a staggering $40,500 in annual costs on every homeless person with mental problems, who account for many of the chronically homeless,” said an April 2015 Washington Post story.

The success rate has been impressive in places like Salt Lake City (more than 80 percent), but Walker acknowledged, “It’s not that simple” everywhere.

Which brings us to Santa Barbara.

“It’s very difficult to do a Housing First model when you don’t have sufficient housing,” said Chuck Flacks, executive director of Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), in an interview. And yet, efforts by C3H and others have made strides, although probably not as positive as the Point-in-Time surveys would suggest.

The surveys, conducted every other year by hundreds of volunteers coordinated by C3H and Common Ground Santa Barbara, last year found 893 homeless people in Santa Barbara, down 14 percent over four years. But it’s a sampling, not a complete survey, asserted Flacks. “Some researchers recommend doubling or tripling the number for a more accurate reflection.”

“There’s still a large number out there,” agreed Rob Fredericks, chief administrative officer of the Santa Barbara Housing Authority. A key reason is plain to see every day: the climate. “If I were homeless … Santa Barbara would be one of the places I’d choose,” he said. So it’s like trying to hold back the tide. “If you don’t house more than the influx, you’re kind of treading water,” Fredericks said. Thanks also to the high cost of housing, “It’s a much harder nut here than in Utah.”

And yet, campaigns predating Housing First have been waged here successfully. Transition House, founded in 1986, has been providing housing and infant care at shelters and care centers. Even earlier (since 1965), the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission has been providing meals by the hundreds of thousands, thousands of safe nights of shelter, and a 12-month residential recovery program that has helped hundreds.

More recently, C3H worked with businesses along Milpas Street to house 10 chronically homeless people in that area. And C3H community coordinator Jeff Shaffer is working with the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization to create a similar effort.

And there are still more campaigns afoot. But given Santa Barbara’s mild climate and expensive real estate, is the concept of solving homelessness here impossible?

First of all, said Flacks, Utah hasn’t eliminated homelessness, it has created equilibrium. “Each new homeless person is housed within 30 days,” he said. “In places as pleasant as Southern California, you could never eliminate it.”

The focus here is on the county’s own chronically homeless population, not the “travelers, who never stay too long,” Flacks said. “Somebody who chooses to be homeless won’t be interested in housing.” Excepting that group, “We find in the survey, the vast majority, if offered housing, would take it.”

Over time, those in the various local campaigns have come to know each of Santa Barbara’s chronically homeless persons. “After we get to know them, we learn that they really don’t like being addicted to heroin or meth,” Flacks said. “We talk to them on a weekly basis to find out their needs. Our team gets to know people and develop a relationship. We develop trust.”

In addition to suffering from mental illnesses, many of the homeless individuals have “burned bridges because of bad experiences,” said Flacks. “So they don’t want anything to do with the system.” How to overcome that? “It’s a process of listening and connecting,” Flacks said. “The best way is over a meal,” which Shaffer provides weekly at Alameda Park. “He and other church groups have moved from feeding people once a week to actually helping people. It’s similar in many respects to drug and alcohol counseling. Get people talking, develop trust and get them to open up. It’s not magic. It’s compassion.”


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