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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