Spearheaded by the federal government nearly a decade ago, “Housing First” is now statewide policy in California. Housing First emphasizes that the primary need for the homeless is housing, and prohibits the requirement of sobriety, or any form of accountability.
While this policy has worked for some, it is not working for hundreds of thousands in California. In just the last two years, homelessness has increased by 23 percent in Los Angeles and by 27 percent in San Diego and Sacramento counties. With the lack of affordable housing, homelessness will continue to grow.
We should not be surprised. There is no one-size-fits-all medication for the homeless. Poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, a lack of education and job skills, and mental illness must be treated with the same attention that “housing first” receives.
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To reduce recidivism (more than 65 percent at the time), the state dramatically increased rehabilitation services for inmates and incentives for them to participate. The recidivism rate is now 45 percent. This holistic, proven approach by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation should be applied to the homeless with equal vigor.
Saint John’s Program for Real Change, which is designed for homeless single mothers, follows this philosophy and data-driven approach. We help our moms turn their lives around to become productive, contributing members of their communities and to realize their God-given potential.
In our first 23 years, we only provided shelter, but over the past decade as we saw too many clients returning for the same help, we evolved into a program that also offers services to help these mothers become self-sustaining and permanently escape the cycle of poverty and homelessness. Our comprehensive 12- to 18-month program includes mental health services, alcohol and drug counseling, parenting and budgeting classes, high school diploma classes and hands-on employment training. Clients must continue to earn their housing, and they’re often told, “We can’t be working harder on you than you are working on yourself.”
Saint John’s moves a person out of poverty and homelessness at an average cost of $14,000 a year – less than a third of the cost of the typical government program. The long-term cost savings from the rehabilitative approach are immeasurably more significant.
Just as Housing First will not work for everyone, our approach will not work for everyone, either. Change is hard work, and some are simply not ready to put in such effort. But providing that opportunity is not only fiscally responsible, it is the humane thing to do.
California should choose to follow the data-supported path proven by CDCR. Not only will taxpayers be better off, the homeless will be as well.
Michele Steeb is CEO of the Saint John’s Program for Real Change in Sacramento. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.