Jobs, sobriety can bring about real change

Experts issued a major report last month about reducing poverty and increasing opportunity. The groundbreaking effort by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution offers a bipartisan focus on ways to reduce poverty.

Two unequivocal assertions emerged: First, the most important criterion for any social program is to strengthen people’s ability to take responsibility for themselves and their children; second, employment must be at the center of any strategy to reduce poverty.

We agree completely. We also believe the issues of poverty and homelessness should be viewed through a very different lens than is being done now.

Unfortunately, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nation’s largest funder of shelter, is moving in the wrong direction, as it relates to homeless families.

The department’s solution for all homeless people, no matter what led them to homelessness, is the concept of housing first, which seeks to move people experiencing homelessness immediately into subsidized housing. This housing is permanent and non-time-limited. Once in subsidized housing, people can decide whether to access any sort of services to make changes in their lives.

At Saint John’s Program for Real Change, we have found people must be highly motivated to change. To make changes, they must seek help. People struggling with mental illness and addiction often lack that motivation.

Complicating matters, reaching services is tough, given public transportation inadequacies. Stunningly, there’s no requirement of sobriety in this non-time-limited, subsidized housing.

For certain segments of the homeless population, such as people suffering from severe mental illness, housing-first seemingly makes sense.

We are heartened by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León’s proposal, made with former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, to divert a small part of Proposition 63 funding to house homeless people who have mental illness. However, we are concerned about the housing-first approach’s impact on families.

For single-mother-led families with significant barriers to self-sufficiency, the housing-first model is particularly ineffective. Seventy-one percent of the women who enter Saint John’s struggle with mental illness; 77 percent struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol; 70 percent have experienced domestic violence; 60 percent have criminal records; 45 percent lack a high school diploma.

Placing these families in non-sober housing within 30 days of their homelessness, a time frame that federal housing officials suggest is ideal, runs counter to what the Brookings-AEI report shows will help them succeed. These families need tools for real change: structure, sobriety, parenting, budgeting and hands-on employment training. To encourage self-sufficiency, it takes a year or more to teach and instill new habits.

One solution would be to support Senate Bill 659 by Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel. Her bill, which is co-authored by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Modesto, seeks to provide funding for poverty and homeless programs that insist on services. Bates has bipartisan support in the Legislature but needs more.

The cost of housing is, by far, the cheapest part of the solution. Real change services Saint John’s insist upon for our clients are the most expensive part of the self-sufficiency equation.

And here is the worst part of the feds’ philosophy: Housing-first does not pay for services. Even if an organization had alternative funding to provide services for its clients, HUD will not allow those services to be a required component of the housing.

But we are bewildered that our approach, which requires that women take responsibility, places our public funding at risk, especially because there is no national research showing the housing first model is effective for families. A massive waste of public money and loss of human potential is at stake, unless there is real change in the federal policy.

Chet Hewitt is president and chief executive officer of Sierra Health Foundation. Michele Steeb is chief executive officer of Saint John’s Program for Real Change.