Don’t give up on ending homelessness

A homeless man rides his bike through the remains of grass and trees in August after one of many fires this summer in Discovery Park. Many blame homeless people camping illegally for the blazes.
A homeless man rides his bike through the remains of grass and trees in August after one of many fires this summer in Discovery Park. Many blame homeless people camping illegally for the blazes. rpench@sacbee.com

In Los Angeles, homeless people are sleeping on sidewalks, in alleys and under bridges in numbers not seen in nearly a decade. In Sacramento, groups of homeless campers are being blamed for setting fires along the American River Parkway.

San Franciscans are choking on the drought-heightened odor of urine and feces left by homeless people there. Even in Modesto, homeless men and women are sleeping in city parks and cemeteries, much to the alarm of residents unaccustomed to that sort of thing.

No matter how much California cities and counties seem to sink into putting a merciful end to homelessness, particularly to help those suffering from mental illness and addiction, the problem just doesn’t go away.

This latest spike in concern arises in part from an economic recovery that has forgotten the poor and a booming housing market that has made some cities unaffordable even for middle-class people. Also part of the picture is downtown revitalization, which has plunked upscale lofts into skid rows across the nation.

Statistics show that, nationally, homelessness has been declining for the past eight years, but advocates in some cities say they’re not seeing it, particularly in parts of California. This state, with its soaring housing costs and massive share of the U.S. population, is home to a full 20 percent of the nation’s homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Most recently, Los Angeles announced it will invest $100 million on homeless housing and services. L.A. County supervisors followed the city’s lead with a pledge to add $50 million. But this is far from that city’s first war on homelessness.

In L.A. and across California, plans tend to be announced with great fanfare, only to fizzle as cities lose the political and financial will to see them through once the news conferences have ended. That’s because getting sick, struggling people off the streets is complicated, painstaking and labor-intensive. It can take months or years just to coax one delusional schizophrenic or one hardcore addict into housing and treatment.

There are solutions. The challenge seems to be sticking to them.

That has to change, and our approach has to become more sophisticated. For instance, cities that have had the most success with getting people off the streets and into housing have focused on treating each part of the homeless population differently.

Financially unstable families, for example, might benefit more from a “rapid-rehousing” model, while the “chronically homeless,” those who resist help at every turn, might be better off with more targeted services.

Sacramento, with its modest-sized but intractable homeless population of about 2,600, is trying that latter idea, using highly detailed, constantly updated data. But collecting and analyzing the local numbers is taking longer than we’d like. And data aren’t homes, at least not on the scale that’s needed.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has a smart, cost-effective and potentially sweeping plan to house the mentally ill homeless: Leverage existing tax money from the Mental Health Services Act to secure revenue bonds for tens of thousands of units of supportive housing. “No new money,” he notes, yet a major portion of the population could be helped.

Other cities have declared states of emergency. Portland last week promised to spend $30 million on beds in shelters, affordable apartments and rental protections to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Advocates say that’s not close to enough, but cities must start someplace.

The bottom line is, we have to keep trying. Conceding defeat isn’t an option; Honolulu and Tucson, Ariz., which have resorted to breaking up homeless encampments, have succeeded only in alarming civil libertarians. Persistence is our best weapon in getting California’s most vulnerable the help they need.