Homelessness is a housing problem.
The most visible homeless are the ones who have issues with mental illness or drug addiction. However, these unfortunates are a minority of the homeless population at any given time. Many of the homeless are people who actually still have jobs and ties to the community, and they’re often ashamed of their situation and try to stay out of sight. They may be finding opportunities to couch-surf with friends and relatives, or living out of a vehicle. Many of the long-term homeless are people who became addicted, or have mild mental health issues that become a full-blown crisis, due to the stress of living on the street.
We can’t simply ignore long-term encampments — they are not healthy or safe for the people in them, any more than they are for those of us who worry about crime and trash. But just sending the police to clear people out doesn’t solve the root problem. We need to get as many people as possible into a safe environment where they have a private space, and where they can reliably connect with service providers who can help with whatever is actually needed to get lives back on track, whether that’s mental healthcare or drug treatment, or job training and connections to programs like Section 8 vouchers that can help people get a foothold in the regular housing market.
This approach is not only more humane, it actually costs us less in the long run, because of the reduction in expenses cleaning up the detritus of encampments, and the cost of crime. And it’s been shown to work. Utah brought down their long-term homeless population by more than 90% during the mid-teens, only to see the numbers rebound back up when they abandoned their Housing First program due to misguided ideology.
“The only thing I’ve ever seen that really worked in terms of reducing the number of people on the street was the Housing First policy,” said Glenn Bailey, who directs Crossroads Urban Center, a Salt Lake City food pantry.
“The mistake we made was stopping.”
Houston, TX has also embraced this style of program, and is seeing similar success, with the long-term homeless population on the decline.
During the last decade, Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, has moved more than 25,000 homeless people directly into apartments and houses. The overwhelming majority of them have remained housed after two years. The number of people deemed homeless in the Houston region has been cut by 63 percent since 2011, according to the latest numbers from local officials.
This is a policy that all of us should be able to agree on. It addresses crime, cleans up our streets, and saves money, all while treating people with more respect and dignity than either the punitive approach or the kind of malign neglect we’ve often seen in the Bay Area. While San Bruno may not be able to go it alone on this type of policy, we can work with other cities and push the county and state to focus resources on this type of program.
And one thing we can do on our own is simply find sites for more affordable housing, and more long-term supportive housing, especially sites near transit. While the Safe Harbor shelter over in South San Francisco is an important resource, it’s a long walk from there to basically anything else, especially for people who may not have a car. If we want people to get jobs and re-integrate with society, they need to live close to possible jobs, or at least close to transit so they can reach other places with jobs.