Santa Barbara County is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. In January 2017, through the national Point in Time Count, we identified 1,489 people as homeless in all of Santa Barbara County. The City of Santa Barbara held 790 homeless people, 388 were located in the City of Santa Maria, and the remaining 311 were scattered in other cities and unincorporated areas throughout the county.
In late November, Santa Barbara County awarded 10 agencies $9 million through a one-time California Block Grant intended to address our immediate homelessness challenges. The bulk of this money was awarded to acquire, build, or renovate new housing. The allocation of these funds represents a real potential for dilution of impact because virtually no agency received anywhere near what they need to successfully implement their projects. Very little money was awarded for supportive services. Housing without adequate support will not bring meaningful change to our homelessness crisis and may well encourage public opposition to thoughtful change. If the statistics don’t change in 2021, the public will easily be swayed to the populist voice that says, “We gave them the money and, like always, they just went back to using drugs and alcohol and wanting a free handout.”
Humans are very good at denial. We all hear statements that most people are only one paycheck away from being homeless. None of us think we are going to lose our jobs. We all hear that people lose their homes due to medical bills, but we never think we are going to be that ill. We all hear that people lose their homes due to drug and alcohol addiction, and we say, “I am morally strong and will never succumb to either.” We all hear that people lose their housing as a result of divorce or bankruptcy, and we say, “But that’s not me.”
People become homeless for a variety of reasons. Contrary to an all-too-common belief, homeless people are not an assemblage of drug addicts and ne’er-do-wells; they are under-resourced families and individuals who, at a critical point in time, lack the support necessary to remain housed. Many seek assistance at homeless shelters. More than 30 percent sleep in their cars, and far too many find refuge in storefront entrances, behind dumpsters, and in protected alcoves and alleyways throughout our neighborhoods.
Many homeless people suffer from severe and persistent mental illnesses that create multiple barriers to traditional housing. These individuals in particular need access to low-barrier housing: housing that follows a harm-reduction model, aiming to have as few barriers as possible in order to allow more people access to housing. We have virtually none in Santa Barbara County. Lacking low-barrier housing and an inability to obtain medication or targeted, consistent long-term intervention, these individuals end up in our emergency rooms and in our jails, and they are exited back onto the street to repeat the process over and over again. Fifteen percent of our homeless are seniors with insufficient income to make ends meet; and 8 percent are under the age of 18, some with family, but others are former foster youth, or victims of sex trafficking, trauma, and repeated domestic and family violence. Many are employed.
And, yes, some are dependent upon substances, both legal and illegal. Many are self-medicating in order to manage trauma and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; others use substances to mitigate the fear, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair from years of sleeping on the street. I question how many of us wouldn’t turn to our cache of benzos and cozy cabernets to relieve the stress and strain caused by years of sleeping sitting upright in a dirty, rancid alley.
Our system is broken.
The government funding available to address the homelessness crisis is vastly insufficient to meet the need. The local, federal, and state agencies tasked with allocating and distributing these funds are increasingly overburdened and under-resourced themselves, and they are forced to make far-reaching funding decisions, based on aggregate data, that resultantly lack flexibility or room for modification. Oftentimes, new funding requires housing and service providers to make programmatic changes inconsistent with their mission and client needs, and to implement these changes on a very short timeline and as a requirement for continued funding.
Recently, two nationally recognized homelessness experts visited Santa Barbara and were stunned at how far behind we are in adopting and implementing some of the most basic “best practice” approaches to addressing the issue. What are these best practice approaches?
In January 2018, the federal government mandated that all providers of homeless services and housing who receive federal funding adopt a “coordinated entry” process. Within this system, all homeless individuals are screened using a standardized assessment process, ranked by their level of vulnerability, and then prioritized for placement in available/appropriate housing. An integral component of the coordinated entry process is the “housing first” approach. The housing first approach came about following long and extensive field research with homeless populations. Housing first is not “do-gooder” folly; rather, it is based on sound and reproducible research. Housing first says that before people can begin to address mental-health, alcohol, or drug issues or conduct a meaningful job search, they first need to have a place to live and something to eat.
Best practices show that the homeless population can essentially be categorized into two groups: those needing “permanent supportive housing” and those needing “rapid rehousing.” These two groups are essentially equally divided in number in our county, yet the bulk of the state funds went to permanent supportive housing. The clients for permanent supportive housing are typically struggling with long-term, chronic homelessness, mental and/or physical disabilities, and on occasion, drug and/or alcohol-related issues. Best practices state that these individuals need “supportive housing” where they have daily, immediate access to case managers and mental-health professionals. People needing rapid rehousing may have some of the issues cited above, but to a lesser degree. Housing for this group is generally in local apartments. These people are supported by case managers who focus on helping them establish the skills, financial resources, and support networks needed to become self-sufficient. The successful implementation of this best-practice model requires affordable housing, supportive housing, and low-barrier housing. We have an insufficient amount of all three, especially low-barrier housing that is essential to house those most vulnerable.
Santa Barbara, we need a credible visionary plan. This plan must take into account the research regarding best practices and utilize the strategic allocation of resources. This plan must have the involvement and engagement of all community members. We need community meetings to help the public understand the scope and breadth of the homelessness crisis and what they can do to help. This will require that people understand that a room and a bed are insufficient to move people out of the state of homelessness. We need landlords willing to rent to a homeless individual or family. We need innovative funding like Los Angeles’ Measure H bonds that will raise sufficient funds to realistically address the problem. Our city and county need to regularly engage in a detailed analysis of our housing element, and to regulate zoning for sufficient transitional, supportive, and low-barrier housing. We must be creative; we must be innovative.
Continuing to unsystematically throw money at the problem will not bring change. It will not alleviate suffering, and it will certainly harden the false myths and beliefs surrounding who homeless people are. The lack of a comprehensive plan will make it harder to convince skeptics that homeless people deserve our help and will keep us from delivering help that will be effective and lasting.
Kristine Schwarz is the executive director of New Beginnings Counseling Center.