Prospericity

A Mood Shift on Homelessness

To say that we have far too many people sleeping beneath underpasses like this one is too weak. We should have none. Fortunately a new housing first approach points the way toward major positive changes in dealing with a homelessness issue that has felt intractable for thirty years

To say that we have far too many people sleeping beneath underpasses like this one is too weak. We should have none. Fortunately a new housing first approach points the way toward major positive changes in dealing with a homelessness issue that has felt intractable for thirty years.

Homelessness is very much top of the news this January. Here in Sacramento we’ve seen an extended protest of homeless people in front of City Hall demanding “safe ground” to camp on. The protesters have managed to keep the energy going for weeks now,  attracting attention from among others a masked man at the Anonymous hacker organization who supports their cause. Blocks away at the State Capitol, meanwhile, there is at last a proposal involving more than pocket change to deal with the State’s massive homelessness problem (around one in five homeless people nationally live in California). Senate Democrats want to redirect more than $2 billion toward housing for the homeless, mostly from Proposition 63 mental health funds.

This local and state news mirrors national trends. For the first time since homelessness emerged as a major national problem thirty-some years ago with the simultaneous cuts to housing and mental health programs that took place under the Reagan Administration, there seems to be a shift in the mood of inevitability that has characterized the issue. The epicenter of the shift, interestingly enough, is in the deep red state of Utah. There, a “housing first” approach has led to an at least 70 percent reduction in chronic homelessness while simultaneously saving the government money (better, it turns out, to provide cheap apartments than to pay for expensive doctors and nurses in emergency rooms). At the other end of the political and geographic spectrum housing affordability has emerged at the very top of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s to do list in his third year as Mayor. For instance see this fascinating interview with Mayor DeBlasio on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show – especially beginning at about minute thirteen when he addresses a question from Yvonne in Manhattan about the successful programs begun by a figure the caller in wonderfully big city fashion identifies as the “Mayor of Utah.”

DeBlasio responds to Yvonne by describing a new City initiative called “Home-Stat” (Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action Teams).  He claims that under this program, outreach workers are poised to fan out all over Manhattan between Canal and 145th Street to identify each of the approximately 3,000 chronically homeless people in that area by name, and then and find housing options for them.

While Home-Stat seems to represent a formal policy adoption of the new and successful “housing-first” approach pioneered in Utah,  DeBlasio is also proposing a 15,000-unit increase in a homegrown program that has been a quiet success in New York for many years. This program is called “supportive housing,” and I am quite familiar with it from living for eight years with a motley but sweet cast of young men in a building on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn that sponsored several supportive housing apartments. It’s a great program for people who lack the skills to live on their own, but can stay housed and employed at least part-time with someone checking-in. I’d like to write more about it in future posts.

For the record I’m unsympathetic to public camping here in Sacramento, very much behind the “housing first” approach associated with Utah, supportive of the California Legislature’s plan to redirect mental health funds toward housing construction (though I think I have a better idea), and deeply intrigued by both the specifics and the atmospherics associated with Mayor DeBlasio’s big push on housing affordability in New York. Overall I’m hopeful that the political rules may, for the first time in my adult life, be changing around homelessness and housing issues in general.

In future posts I want to look at a few specific issues including:

  • A wonky policy issue called the “real estate transfer tax.” This tax already exists in San Francisco, and has been proposed at the State level as a funding source to address the core problem of the affordable housing supply.
  • How new housing initiatives in New York City appear to be working out over the next months. Housing in New York is a vast topic, but I want to try to keep particular tabs on the Mayor’s Home-Stat and supportive housing initiatives. I also want to look into whether there are analogs to the supportive housing program here in California.
  • The results of efforts through Sacramento Steps Forward to conduct a census of the homeless population right here in the capital city.