Viewpoints

It’s imperative to act now to address homelessness

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Everyone in Sacramento has a story of how homelessness has touched their lives. We all recognize the need for aggressive and humane steps that change the narrative that homelessness is hopeless. It is a human tragedy and an issue affecting businesses and neighborhoods, and continues to weigh on our collective social conscience.

Compounding this tragedy is the fact we already know what works: assertive community outreach; intensive case management; and permanent housing coupled with the services people need to transition out of homelessness for good.

While we have strong foundations for each of these elements, we lack the coordination, cooperation and resources for them to be effective. Fortunately, that could be changing. On Jan. 31 the city and county were to host an unprecedented joint meeting to bring Sacramento’s collective leadership together to address homelessness.

The county has outlined a set of strategies to be presented for consideration in March. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has made homelessness a highest priority and is working with the City Council to propose using existing public housing and voucher resources for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Both the city and county recognize the need to maximize existing resources and bring new resources to bear.

Additional funding to expand the city and county’s trust funds is fundamental to a long-term strategy to end homelessness. But the homelessness crisis demands immediate action. Not one more person should die while being homeless. To address this immediate need, Steinberg proposes prioritizing for the next two years 600 vouchers and 200 public housing units, the average number that turn over each year, to help individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

Dramatically increasing the housing stock for homeless people is a critical first step toward ending homelessness. But to use existing resources for the currently homeless, we must make hard choices. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency currently administers about 12,000 Housing Choice Vouchers and 3,300 public housing units. The wait list for these resources is long – about 70,000 households. Yet, homeless people have historically been overlooked as potential recipients for these resources.

Current waiting list preference criteria include being displaced due to government action, veteran status, being disabled or being rent burdened. However, homeless people are disadvantaged in the scoring process because they do not pay any rent – and are therefore not “rent burdened.” Not only have homeless people been limited in their ability to access these resources, but the limitation has coincided with a dramatic increase in homelessness throughout our region.

We are in a crisis. People are dying in the streets. The need for housing far outweighs our current capacity, but true leadership demands confronting hard decisions – and I implore our elected officials to prioritize those who have for too long been overlooked.

Any proposal to prioritize Housing Choice Vouchers and public housing units for homeless people would require further analysis and work. We have to consider how needed services can be coupled with the voucher resources. But we must make a serious and quantified commitment to address this need today. Without a commitment to a specific number of units and level of assistance, it is too easy to make only modest changes or let technical challenges limit or dissuade us.

Sacramento must act immediately to save people living on the streets and commit to developing new revenues. The time for talk is over. The joint city and county meeting Jan. 31 is an important and symbolic opportunity for Sacramento to change the narrative on addressing homelessness in our region and to make 2017 the year we come together to end the tragedy of homelessness.

Cathy Creswell is the chair of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission, president of the Sacramento Housing Alliance and a member of the Sacramento Continuum of Care Advisory Board. She can be contacted at cat.creswell@comcast.net.

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