Friday, February 10, 2017

Three Bells: A Response and Critique of the Santa Rosa Homeless Summit

By Adrienne Lauby, Homeless Action! member

Thank you to the Santa Rosa Collective, Catholic Charities. St. Joseph’s and anyone else who helped produce this 2-day workshop.  Thank you for making it possible for low and no-income people to attend and eat lunch.  Thank you for giving Homeless Action! one of the break-out sessions. Thank you for providing an intellectually stimulating couple of days. Thank you all for attending and being part of our ongoing attempt to do something ‘awesome’ to end homelessness in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa.  My four recommendations from this Summit are at the end of this essay.

Before the Summit, my understanding of “Housing First” was that we would stop trying to fix people until we get them into housing.  I support that.  As someone who has been poor and someone who knows and works with many homeless people, I see how varied and how strong many homeless people are.  I’ve seen the ineffective and humiliating programs many homeless people are channeled into “for their own good.”  This theory rang a large brass bell of jubilation for me.
I also liked Iain’s focus on radical acceptance, allowing people to be the people they are rather than trying to figure out what is wrong with them and putting together a path for their improvement.
We don’t know what any individual is capable of; we don’t know what they need.  As we all know from our own life, improvement is a complex and personal thing.  Iain said that a helper’s job is to 1) get people into housing and 2) walk alongside them in a non-judgmental, constructive, consistent and intensive way.
Hearing him discuss this in detail was not only validating but a good refresher course for my own behavior.  For much of the Summit, I felt we were advocating Housing as a Human Right and challenging the idea that only those who meet standards set from above should have a community that includes food, shelter and healthcare.  I deeply believe that food, shelter and healthcare should be shared and not be doled out, as it is so often, as punishment or reward.
All of this rang a sweet-toned bell, a bell of long-term and ongoing hope.

I learned that, in Iain’s version of Housing First, nearly all of the available resources would be shifted from helping people who are homeless into 1) housing location and 2) extensive case management after people get into a house.  I believe this is the Federal government’s version of Housing First as well.
Which is more important, to feed people once a week or to get them a house with a kitchen?  To teach parenting skills or get a parent a home for their children?  Put this way, it seems obvious that housing is the most important goal.
Homeless people would largely agree.  When I ask homeless people how Homeless Action! can help them, the number one answer is, “I need a place to live.”  Homeless people also say that the agency staff who are supposed to be helping them don’t do the things they need most.  They say the agencies have their own agendas and spend too much time either trying to improve their characters and/or enforce unnecessary rules.
Iain said that we could house people even in high rent, low vacancy areas like Sonoma County.  He said that most poor people, most people living with mental illness, most people who drink, do drugs or have other problems do not become homeless.  All these people, he said, find homes in the current rental market.  We just need to work harder and be more focused.  He said we could find homes for the homeless people who live here.
Iain gave two categories of housing that we may be missing, 1) owners who rent informally, only to people recommended by current tenants and 2) corporate owners who might welcome less vacancies and turn over.  Is there housing for the homeless available in Sonoma County if we look in these two areas?    We don’t know.  But, the hope that there are rental openings we don’t know about, don’t work hard enough to find, or don’t have the skills to locate is exciting.
More resources should be devoted to testing this theory.  The Rent Sonoma Committee of the Continuum of Care began doing this work.  There is also a group in West County starting to forge links with landlords.  Their efforts and other work in this area should be encouraged and provided with resources.
The Santa Rosa City Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors through the Continuum of Care should ask for monthly data from each agency to track their success in locating apartments and getting homeless people into them.  Shelter providers should also report their capacity and wait list numbers.  These reports could be very simple but should be on each website.
The idea that everyone who is working on homeless issues would focus on housing people is alluring.
For funders, it’s particularly handy because, with simple metrics, they can grade everyone from the individual staff member to entire agencies.  We only need to ask the question: What percentage of the people who come through your door were you able to house last month?
This also set a bell to ringing and, this time, it was a warning bell.

Iain presented himself as an expert and often referred to research that proved his point. He painted people who might object as people who are resistant to change or people who want to protect their agencies.  The proactive silencing of those who may disagree is bad behavior and should be ignored.
As I said above, the simplicity of this version of “Housing First” is very alluring and, I believe, particularly alluring for funders.  But, its simplicity is also its flaw.  Human societies are not simple and homelessness is not a single-issue problem.
Iain spoke of the many people who are ‘able to find housing even in a tight housing market.’  But homelessness is primarily a result of poverty and, in Sonoma County poor people, elders, those on fixed income, mentally disabled people, and people with addiction or other problems are not doing so well.
Despite ObamaCare, many people with mental illnesses cannot access routine health care.  Rental insecurity is exacerbating mental and physical illnesses.  There is a pathetic lack of treatment available for addicts, and the quality of life for many elders and youth continues to slide.
According to the Sonoma County Department of Health Services’ 2014 “Portrait of Sonoma County,” huge disparities along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender persist in levels of health, education, and standard of living. Many people have already had to leave the county because they could not find a way to support, shelter and feed themselves in Santa Rosa.  All of this is likely to get even worse under the Trump administration.  When 30% of households spend more than 50% of their income on rent, as they do here, we have a problem that can not be measured by the number of homeless people we house.
Will finding available apartments for homeless people shrink the number of apartments available for other low and no-income people?  That seems likely.
Both the City of Santa Rosa and the CDC efforts have the homeless issue as a primary focus.  As they seek solutions and work for success, we must ensure that they do not ignore the wider problems and solutions.   Both the business and the advocacy community recognize that the financial burden of paying 50% of income for rent is impossible in the long term.
I asked Kris Freed, one of the Summit presenters, to explain how this model of Housing First works in her organization, the L.A. Family Housing.  She said that her LFH once had both transitional housing and shelter housing and they had 300 person waiting lists.  They closed the transitional housing, made the shelter bare bones and put all their money into finding housing and helping people stay in their houses.  Now she can guarantee that people who come to her can have a house within 60 days. Who wouldn’t want that?
But, when I ask more questions, I got a picture of many people squeezed into crowded, stressful living conditions.  LFH offers some help with the initial rent but there were no ongoing rental subsidies.  They do the kind of casework Iain recommended but for even the most troubling conditions, it ends after two years.  This was very disturbing information and we need to learn the details of those who have “succeeded” via Housing First.  Are these successes successful by our community standards?  What are the trade-offs in health and well being both for the homeless and for the low-income communities?
If we select only the outcome of “stable housing for the chronically homeless”, we are setting our goals too narrowly.  And, we are allowing the larger community to ignore their role in providing a reasonable quality of life for all its residents.
The U.S. homeless population skyrocketed beginning with Ronald Reagan’s 50% cuts to HUD (Housing and Urban Development), the agency that had historically been tasked with building low income housing stock.  In each decade since, those low-income houses have not been built.  If we apply the model of Housing First that we heard at the Summit, we don’t need the Federal government to help house the people of the U.S.  But, this is patently untrue.
Locally, both the City of Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma have committed to building housing dedicated to homeless and other low or no-income people.  Their efforts need to be encouraged and supported.  The “boomerang funds” which returned from Redevelopment should be tracked and we must assure they are dedicated to housing, rather than just lament the loss of Redevelopment. And, the State of California also needs to step up to their obligations to provide for community housing needs.
Finally, and this may be the most important thing I am saying, if resources are to be redirected, we must ask homeless people which services are the most important to them. Any funding changes, whether within an agency or from outside funders, must only be made after a rigorous survey of the most important people, the homeless people themselves.

1.  Test the theory that there are rental openings we don’t know about, don’t work hard enough to find, or don’t have the skills to locate.  Encourage and provide resources to those who are working to locate housing for homeless people through direct contact with landlords, property managers and owners.  Track their progress carefully.
2.   Ask for public monthly reports from each agency on their success in housing homeless people as well as the capacity and wait list at each shelter.
3.   Support, but assure transparency from, the City of Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma’s commitment to building housing dedicated to homeless and other low or no-income people.
4.  Redirect funding only in response to and as guided by a rigorous survey of homeless people who currently use the services (agency level changes) or homeless people as a whole (city and county-wide changes).


Here's two YouTube videos featuring the Santa Rosa City Council discussion on extending the Emergency Ordinance on the local homeless crisis:

Santa Rosa City Council, Feb 7th, Part 1
Santa Rosa City Council, Feb 7th, Part 2

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