Viewpoint

Traditional homeless shelters versus permanent housing

May 14, 2014 

City Councilman Dan Carpenter

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

Two overriding concerns are prevalent when addressing the homeless situation in San Luis Obispo: How do we maintain the health and safety of our businesses and residents while at the same time providing a dignified path of self-sufficiency for our less fortunate citizens?

The majority of my colleagues on the San Luis Obispo City Council believe appropriating $250,000 toward construction of a building at 40 Prado Road for a new homeless service center is the answer. I disagree and don’t believe it’s the best use of your taxpayer dollars. It should concern you that, to date, no other city in our area has appropriated general fund dollars for this “regional homeless shelter.”

Many would like you to believe this will be a regionally supported facility, but we all know SLO is already a mecca for the transient homeless. Building a stateof-the-art brick and mortar monument will only illuminate the attraction. What’s the incentive for other cities in our county to provide a shelter when this major facility is located within a few miles?

Our police chief has validated the increase in the number of transient homeless people drifting through SLO and documented the significant behavioral impacts this population has on our community. The message is out across this country: Come to SLO where we are “homeless friendly.” It’s no longer “build it and they will come,” but rather, “build it and more will come.”

Let’s invest our resources in those individuals who are committed to being accountable and work toward self-sufficiency, and not those that have migrated here looking to temporarily draw on this community with no intention of being productive members of society.

A paradigm shift and growing trend across this country is to NOT build traditional homeless shelters. The federal homelessness policy is a model that supports primarily housing-based solutions. A national effort to reduce homelessness through a plan that promotes rapid rehousing resulted in a 4 percent reduction in homelessness, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report made to Congress. The rate of recidivism is reduced significantly when individuals are placed immediately in permanent housing, avoiding the traumatic experience of a multi-bed living environment. These programs focus on quickly helping homeless find employment, housing, mental health services and on connecting them with social service programs.

There are success stories in our state as well as across the nation. The “Housing First” approach was pioneered by Beyond Shelter, a private nonprofit whose mission is to combat chronic poverty, welfare dependency and homelessness among families with children. This program is embraced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness as the “best practice” for governments and service agencies to use in their fight to end chronic homelessness in America, rather than moving homeless people through different “levels” of housing, whereby each level moves them closer to “independent living.” For example: Moving from the streets to a public shelter, from a public shelter to a transitional housing program and from there to their own apartment.

Homeless people’s primary need is to obtain stable housing. Other issues that may affect the household can and should be addressed once housing is obtained. Housing First places families as quickly as possible in permanent housing, then provides intensive home-based case management and support services to prevent a recurrence of homelessness. This eliminates the path that gets people “ready” for housing.

What’s to get ready? We know what they want and need. Let’s eliminate the time and resources spent preparing homeless people for housing, and use the millions of dollars that would have gone into land acquisition and building a “monument” and use it instead to meet their immediate needs.

The ongoing need for temporary, seasonal shelters can be accommodated by our faith-based congregations, with the support of a rebuild on the Maxine Lewis property already designated for housing. Our underutilized faith-based community is already in place to offer a high level of compassion and care. Such organizations as the Interfaith Coalition for the Homeless, People’s Kitchen and Friends of Prado are fully prepared to assist in this outreach. Each has played an integral part in serving this community with exemplary track records of support and fiscal management of donations.

Housing First ends homelessness immediately; it reduces the trauma involved in experiencing homelessness; it provides a roof over someone’s head with stability. It’s particularly effective for homeless people who have disabilities or mental health issues. Research shows its effectiveness contributes to reducing costs to the health care and criminal justice systems.

If we truly are our brother’s keeper, we should commit to a program like Housing First that responsibly provides our homeless residents with immediate housing and a legitimate path to self-sufficiency. This program removes the stigma of being homeless in search of housing. Conversely, constructing a “holding pen” for this population does nothing to elevate the dignity of our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Dan Carpenter is a member of the San Luis Obispo City Council.

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