Solving the homelessness problem, with housing
Laura Blackmore worked minimum-wage jobs for most of her life. Her last job as a deli worker didn’t pay much, but she earned enough to provide a modest living for herself and her son, now a career Navy man. But when a series of health conditions worsened, she could no longer work.
At 40, Blackmore found herself homeless. She spent the next decade living in her car, in homeless shelters and, at times, had nowhere else to sleep but outside. She recalls the nights she spent on a bench in Doyle Park in Santa Rosa.
Then her luck turned.
In 2010, after she had been homeless for nearly a decade, a modest, one-bedroom apartment opened up in southwest Santa Rosa, one of the coveted housing slots created to help homeless people get off the streets.
“I was sleeping at the shelter, and someone asked me if I wanted to live someplace,” said Blackmore, now 55. “I couldn’t believe it. I had been looking for some kind of housing for years.”
Blackmore was in the right place at the right time, when the lead federal agency overseeing nationwide homelessness initiatives shifted its primary focus to a model known as Housing First. With the shift came millions of dollars a year for cities and counties throughout the nation, designated for programs that get people safe, secure housing before tackling root causes of homelessness such as substance abuse or mental health problems. Experts in the field now consider it the best way to eradicate homelessness.
The approach represents a radical shift from U.S. policy that previously focused on treating health complications and social problems while housing the homeless in shelters and transitional accommodations. Since 2001, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has granted money for market-rate housing subsidies to local governments as part of Housing First, a model developed after 40 years of research and efforts to address the rise of homelessness nationwide.
“What we’ve found, and what the research has shown, is that the one thing making a difference is to emphasize permanent housing solutions,” said Ed Cabrera, a California public affairs manager for HUD. “It’s the most important health intervention for vulnerable populations, and it works. Around 90 percent of people stay housed.”
Sonoma County homeless advocates have long agreed that the approach is the best way to help the homeless, but county officials did not fully adopt the model until late last year.
“That was the first time that local entities went on record in support of Housing First,” said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, who coordinates the county’s homeless policies.
The problem so far has been scraping together enough funding to provide local “permanent supportive housing,” the cornerstone of Housing First, as well as finding the units. This year, however, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors allocated nearly $1 million to local nonprofits to serve the chronically homeless, and federal dollars divvied out to local nonprofits that house the most vulnerable populations have increased slightly each year. The county receives about $20 million annually to fund homeless housing and services, roughly $13 million dedicated to permanent supportive housing.
Sonoma County’s supply of permanent supportive housing units has increased four-fold over the past decade, with 1,192 beds today, but many more people remain on the streets. The 2015 homeless count, conducted one night in January, found 2,000 people living outdoors, compared with 3,300 people in 2013. The people who remain are most likely the hardest to reach.
“They’ve spent most of their lives outside, so become enculturated to being homeless,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities. “Until we find housing for those people, they won’t be able to start addressing their underlying symptoms - or causes - of homelessness.”
There are steep challenges in getting people off the streets and into housing, but local politicians, health officials and homeless advocates say the local effort is worth it. They contend that housing is the best form of health intervention and saves taxpayers millions of dollars per year.
“For people we care for, with severe and persistent mental illness, who have led very hard, traumatic lives, the best form of care is a roof over their heads,” said Tom Bieri, executive director of Community Support Network, which operates four sites in Sonoma County. “There’s this Judeo-Christian work ethic that says, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and if you’re not able to do that, there’s this stigma, this shame. It’s not talked about, but you can feel it.