Many of Sonoma County’s key efforts aimed at addressing the local homeless crisis, including transitional housing, sanctioned homeless camps, tiny homes and safe parking sites, will do little to alleviate chronic homelessness, said Iain De Jong, an internationally recognized advocate for the homeless, during a conference Monday on homeless solutions.
Speaking bluntly with a mix of humor and brutal honesty, De Jong, president and CEO of Canada-based OrgCode Consulting Inc, which works with nonprofits on strategies and planning, challenged local government officials and homeless services providers to stop trying to “fix people” and simply house them.
“Homelessness has never been ended by a hut, or a campground or a safe parking spot. Never,” said, speaking on the first of a two-day “Summit on Homeless Solutions” organized by the Santa Rosa Homeless Collective, a local consortium of homeless service providers and local government agencies.
The conference, held at the Spring Hills Community Church on Fulton Road, was advertised as a “meaningful conversation about ending homelessness.” At its core was the “housing first” model, an approach that seeks to provide permanent housing to homeless people as quickly as possible, and later provide support services as needed.
Under the model, homeless people with the gravest needs are prioritized first for services and no conditions are placed on them, such as requirements that people remain clean, sober, compliant and agreeable before they are granted housing.
De Jong, a champion of the housing first model, said programs aimed solely at preventing homelessness and teaching homeless people the life skills necessary to manage their housing are a waste of time.
“That doesn’t end homelessness. All it does is take resources and time away,” he said, adding that such programs must be part of an independent, permanent housing program and have that as the ultimate goal. “We have to focus on what works and we have to stop confusing being busy with being effective.”
Organizers of the conference said they welcomed the opportunity to rethink the effectiveness of local homeless programs.
“He’s challenging our assumptions,” said Santa Rosa City Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a member of the Santa Rosa Homeless Collective.
Schwedhelm said those involved in finding solutions to the local homeless crisis are questioning the effectiveness of their programs, while examining the systems in place that are barriers to change.
“I’m hoping we as a city can be a leader in this,” working alongside the county and local service providers, Schwedhelm said.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she didn’t “disagree with him on most of the things he said” and that the county has adopted a housing first approach to homelessness. She defended the county’s project to build a cluster of a dozen homes, to be named Veterans Village, as a permanent housing plan.
Zane said the county was also a key partner in the opening last year of the Palms Inn, a former motel converted into 104 permanent housing units for chronically homeless people and homeless veterans.
The program is regarded as a prime example of the housing first model.
Zane said that the safe parking and sanctioned homeless encampments are emergency responses to homelessness and not regarded as permanent housing solutions. She said she would like to see the county enforce its housing first policy with local homeless service providers that receive county funds.