Homeless Crisis: Toward Solutions

Although we all know that the issue of homelessness is a national crisis, we here in Santa Monica and in all of Southern California experience it on a daily basis.

There are now, by some estimates, more than a 100,000 chronically homeless in the United States. Roughly, 6 percent of those live in California, and 900 to 1,000 by some counts are in Santa Monica. (While body counts, such as the Annual Homeless Count scheduled for Jan. 24, are meaningful up to a point; they don’t suggest solutions.)

In 1992, a New York University psychologist, Sam Tsemberis decided to test an unconventional approach to the problem. His idea was to just give the chronically homeless a place to live on a permanent basis, without making them pass any tests, attend any programs and/or fill out any forms. He knew he was perhaps dealing with schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatized, and even brain damaged individuals. Why not just give them a place to live? Offer them free counseling, therapy, health care and other necessities and let them decide if they want to participate. He and some associates formed Pathways to Housing. Some 242 individuals were given apartments, no questions asked and treated with dignity, and asked only not to bother their neighbors.

After five years 88 percent were still in their apartments and the cost was less than treating them on the street. The concept became known as Housing First and was even embraced by the Bush administration in 2003.

In 2005, Salt Lake City, Utah, which had a significant homeless problem, 2,000 plus individuals, decided to try the Housing First concept. They wanted to run a small test. So with the help of state government and local charitable organizations they achieved equally satisfactory results. They are expanding their programs to provide housing for the remaining homeless.

Santa Clara County, California adopted the same Housing First model and by 2014 they had housed 840 people in apartments and have plans to house the remaining 6,000 homeless.

This may sound like we are just warehousing the problem. It is only then that we can get to the next phase of these experiments which is perhaps the most difficult, and that is the rehabilitation where possible of the individuals involved. That phase takes even longer and the results from the trials I have mentioned are still to be evaluated.

The root causes being what they are will require much concentrated effort by both the public and private sectors to reverse the current trend. The size of the homeless population is expanding and the availability of low cost, i.e. affordable housing, is shrinking jeopardizing the stability of many and forcing still more into homelessness.

Our own Governor Jerry Brown in 2011 slashed redevelopment funds which might have been put to use to bolster the affordable housing stocks.

Prefabricated tiny homes, pod housing, stackable systems of factory built components should be part of the equation to resolve this issue and our state surplus should help with funding. Riverside is home to the largest factory built housing manufacturer in the country. I am sure they would be more than glad to work with the public sector in developing plans that respond to this need.

The City of Santa Monica should consider the Housing First approach. Of course, this should be coordinated with the plans of Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles. Also, we should consult with the administrators from those cities with Housing First programs. Our city has underutilized suitable parcels of land it could donate for this use at the airport and elsewhere.

If places as economically, demographically and politically diverse as New York, Salt Lake City, and Santa Clara County can make Housing First work, cannot Santa Monica? To be sure, the return on investment will vary, depending on how you count the benefits of fewer people living in the streets, clogging emergency rooms and crowding jails. “Ironically, ending homelessness this way may be cheaper then continuing to treat the problem in the traditional ways this City has. This would not only benefit the people who are homeless; it would benefit the rest of us to know we live in a more compassionate and just nation.” Tsemberis has said, “It is not a matter of whether we know how to fix the problem. Homelessness is not a disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s where we don’t yet have a cure. We have the cure for homelessness and it is housing.”

Do we in the City of Santa Monica and in the County and State have the political will? I believe we do and we can be in the forefront of the solution.

Samuel Tolkin, Architect for SMa.r.t.