Opportunities Lost

City fumbles efforts to solve homelessness

By Jeff Harris
March 2023

Progress on the homeless crisis needs five components: monetary resources, political will, a model for housing and services, a place to implement the program and adequate service providers.

With collaborative effort, the city and county can make real progress.

But first, elected officials must admit homelessness is a crisis. We often hear the words “crisis” from the City Council. But the actions enable people to camp in squalor on our streets.

That’s not compassion. And it’s no way to solve a crisis.

An example is “Camp Resolution,” where staff was told to move people illegally squatting on land deemed unfit for humans by state water authorities.

City staff did outreach at the camp. But on the night before cleanup, Councilmember Katie Valenzuela brought so-called homeless advocates to a City Council meeting. The work was canceled.

This was a tremendous waste of money. Staff was demoralized. An opportunity lost.

Not enough resources have been allocated to programs that create real change. With state and federal pandemic funds, we had opportunities. But much of that money was spent on other projects. Homelessness was not effectively addressed.

The city can’t bear the financial burden alone. Private philanthropy needs to engage. City Council needs to stop tossing out one-off projects and create a cohesive plan to shelter and treat as many homeless people as possible.

A lot of money is squandered on knee-jerk reactions to storm events for underused respite centers. As the “Camp Resolution” story shows, City Council gives staff the runaround, asking for cleanup and enforcement efforts, then reverses the directives.

Many models have been built to address the housing and behavioral health needs of homeless people. Permanent housing and supportive housing are a piece of the puzzle, but extremely expensive.

The city has supported a lot of affordable housing. But to deal with the sheer numbers of unhoused people, the best option is interim housing. Our congregate shelters are only marginally successful and difficult to manage.

For interim housing, I’m talking about small structures such as pallet shelters, modular stackable shelters or tiny home communities where behavioral health needs can be addressed. In a declared emergency, building code restrictions are relaxed, which brings down costs.

The city currently spends up to $550,000 per unit for permanent supportive housing. Interim housing can be erected for about $50,000. Dignity Moves, a Bay Area nonprofit, has built three interim housing communities and demonstrated encouraging results getting individuals stabilized and ready for a future in permanent housing.

The campus-to-courtyard model used by San Antonio’s Haven for Hope is very effective, but requires many millions of dollars to build. Haven is supported by 60% private investment.

WellSpace has developed the Crisis Receiving and Behavioral Health center. It’s an effective intervention for substance abusers. We need to replicate this effort and build a wellness campus, a front door for homeless services.

The needs are clear: Cities and counties must supply places to build housing. They must support programs and service providers.

Sacramento purchased 102 acres in the south area to tackle the homeless conundrum. But all we’ve heard from City Council is a desire to build a soccer complex there. It’s an ideal place for interim housing.

In contrast, the county has purchased a large warehouse to create a campus-style model. The county also set in motion two tiny home communities. I cheer these efforts, and wish the city would show similar enterprise.

As far as providers go, we have many. Most are excellent. Volunteers of America, Hope Cooperative, WellSpace, Shelter Inc., Women’s Empowerment and many others do tremendous work. This is not our problem area.

If we want to resolve this crisis, we need coordination of providers, more private resources, and cohesive political direction and leadership. Without these elements, the situation will only get worse.

Jeff Harris represented District 3 on the City Council from 2014 to 2022. He can be reached at cadence@mycci.net.

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