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Use new tools to tackle homelessness

Across California, local initiatives are generating funding to deal with homelessness, including a sales tax increase in San Francisco and a bond measure in Los Angeles.
Across California, local initiatives are generating funding to deal with homelessness, including a sales tax increase in San Francisco and a bond measure in Los Angeles. rpench@sacbee.com

The persistence of homelessness in California is a disgrace.

Thankfully, our state’s leaders are taking bold steps to address the problem. Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved a $2 billion bond that will pay for housing and services for those with mental illnesses on our streets. Up and down the state, local initiatives are generating funding to tackle homelessness, including a sales tax increase in San Francisco and a bond measure in Los Angeles.

But solving homelessness requires more than just new money. It also requires that we get smart about how we spend this money. Seizing the opportunity that an influx of funding presents will require a commitment to 21st-century good governance – where decisions are based on data and best practices, and we scale what works and stop what doesn’t. The good news is that cities and states across the country have already begun using new technologies and creative policy to tackle homelessness effectively. Policymakers should follow their lead.

One promising technology is the Silicon Valley Triage Tool, recently rolled out in Santa Clara County. Detailed data is gathered from county jails, hospitals and clinics and used to predict which homeless individuals will make the most use of public services. Officials use the tool to provide the highest-cost users with supportive housing quickly. Researchers estimate that identifying and housing 1,000 high-cost individuals could save more than $19 million a year.

New York has also had success using data to better distribute homelessness funding. Its FUSE (Frequent User Service Enhancement) program identifies homeless individuals most frequently cycling in and out of jails, emergency rooms and shelters so that the city can prioritize them for supportive housing. A 2014 evaluation found that 86 percent of individuals in the program were in permanent housing two years after entering, more than double the rate of a comparison group. California cities should also pursue data-driven, targeted investments to ensure we put our taxpayer money to use where it’s needed most.

We should also follow the data that shows the best way to stop chronic homelessness is to provide housing. Brown recently signed a bill requiring state agencies to implement “Housing First” policies – putting the chronically homeless into permanent, no-strings-attached free housing as quickly as possible. That approach builds on a model pioneered in Salt Lake City. After implementing the model, its homeless population decreased by 72 percent between 2006 and 2015, and the city has now housed 91 percent of its chronically homeless population.

Finally, we should scour cities around the country for other promising ideas. Albuquerque’s “There’s a Better Way” program sends vans out every day to invite homeless people to work on beautification projects for above minimum wage. Though small in scale, it has shown promising early results: over a thousand day jobs have been performed by homeless individuals, and hundreds have been connected to employment services, mental health services and substance abuse services through the program.

We can also find creative ideas in our own state. Brown recently signed a bill allowing San Jose to suspend some statewide building codes so that it can more easily build “unconventional” housing – including so-called “microhousing” units – for the city’s homeless population.

California may finally have the funding it needs to address homelessness. Our leaders should seize this opportunity by committing to the principles of 21st-century good governance, using data-driven tools and adopting best practices from around the country to ensure the funds are spent wisely. California is a model for innovation in almost every industry – from technology to agriculture. It’s time we directed that energy to solving one of our most vexing problems.

Steve Westly is founder of The Westly Group, a sustainability venture capital firm. He previously served as California state controller. Contact him at stevewestly2200@gmail.com.

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