We are now in the seventh year of San Luis Obispo County’s “10 year plan to end homelessness.” The plan can hardly be labeled a success, as we have more homeless residents in our community than ever.
The continuum of care approach we have been using promotes a linear model that suggests housing is the end result of an individual moving from streets to shelter, then to transitional programs or permanent supportive housing. Housing is the prize at the end of the process for a client who can demonstrate compliance to service-intense programs, while very few resources are put into actual housing.
In recent years, new models have emerged that challenge those assumptions. Commonly referred to as “Housing First,” this approach to rapid-rehousing abandons the linear model and puts housing at the front of the process.
Empirical research supported by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Department of Housing and Urban Development indicates the mere act of placement in housing produces a level of stabilization that allows the individual to address other needs more effectively, while eliminating the trauma and stigma associated with residency in a temporary shelter.
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A growing body of evidence in the mental and public health literature shows a dramatic improvement in health outcomes, residential stability and cost to society when homeless people receive supportive medical and case management services while living in permanent affordable housing.
Why then is the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County Inc., in partnership with the Homeless Foundation of San Luis Obispo County, building a $4.5 million temporary shelter on Prado Road? What additional resources will be needed to keep this metaphorical albatross sustainable?
From my years of volunteer time in overflow shelters and weekly visits to the trenches (vehicles, creeks and culverts), I can assure you the consensus is a strong desire to be housed, not corralled in a shelter.
Most unhoused individuals and families want what everybody desires: a private, safe, clean and quiet place to call their own.
Those who support the shelter are ignoring the plea of those they claim to serve and the national trend toward an alternative approach to ending homelessness.
In contrast to less effective models that use temporary shelters, programs such as Housing First do not force homeless people to complete or comply with treatment, mental health care, employment training or other services in order to access and maintain permanent housing. Instead, they stabilize people with housing, putting them in a better position to tackle other challenges.
Virtually every major study has shown Housing First ends homelessness for the most vulnerable homeless people faster, more often and more permanently than traditional, treatment-based approaches offered through temporary shelters. When the homeless are placed in housing quickly, 85 percent will never return to homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Locally, the new 50Now program is working to find permanent housing for 50 of the county’s most vulnerable homeless people. That’s a good start, but not nearly enough.
A new shelter will only enable and encourage temporary homelessness. It will become a mecca for the transient homeless whose pilgrimage is validated daily by our community of guilt-ridden enablers who ignore the benevolence of tough love. “Build it and they will come” takes on a whole new meaning as we become the most “homeless friendly” city in America.
As we’ve seen an uptick in recent years, the fringe element and their challenging behaviors have changed the conscientiousness of our community. Recent weeks have exposed evidence of this. In early November, a transient allegedly punched a female employee in the face at the Flip Flop Shop on Higuera Street. In late December, a transient allegedly sexually assaulted a young woman in a public restroom.
These mentally challenged individuals are typically the ones who are denied or resist access to the shelter and its programs.
The new Prado Road mecca will illuminate a perception of “fair game” on our community by those who have lack of deference for the law, and rely on persistent panhandling.
I support keeping the Prado Day Center and the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter open, but only for the time being. The services currently provided at those locations could and should be transitioned to the faith-based community, eliminating the pressure of full-time use of Prado and Maxine. As Housing First is implemented and success realized, it would dissolve the need for a new shelter.
If we’re serious about putting an end to homelessness then (a) scrap the mecca shelter; (b) invest the $4.5 million or more into permanent rental housing and a chemical dependency/mental health intensive inpatient facility; and (c) consistently enforce laws prohibiting illegal behavior.
Of course, your name won’t be on a shiny brass plaque outside a shelter on Prado Road, but you will have peace of mind knowing that you genuinely provided dignity and compassionate care to the least-privileged among us.