Dan Morain

Dan Morain: An unfortunate either-or choice in the fight against homelessness

Not far from the homeless men who spend cold nights on North A Street, on the fence outside cottages named for Bishop Francis Quinn, a sign reads: “Drug & Alcohol Free Zone.”

It might have been true a few years ago. Joseph Zaccardi knows it’s not true now.

Zaccardi grew up in foster care in Oregon, got drunk for the first time when he was 8 and ran away south down Interstate 5 to Sacramento when he was a teenager. He has been clean and sober since Aug. 27, 2011, after he was released from San Quentin for methamphetamine-fueled robberies.

“Oh, yeah, I used probably every day,” he said, recalling “toilet wine” and other abusable substances to which he and the other inmates had ready access.

At 35, Zaccardi is working hard at making an honest living. He is part of the Quinn Cottages staff, working as operations manager for Finishing Touch auto detailing, and he participates in programs. Sobriety was part of the deal when he got into Quinn Cottages.

“I’ve got things to be proud of now,” Zaccardi said. “For years, I didn’t do anything I was proud of.”

But from his single-bedroom cottage at the rough northern edge of downtown Sacramento, Zaccardi sees the impact of decisions made 3,000 miles away. In 2009, Congress approved the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing bill, or H.E.A.R.T.H. (How much time must they spend thinking up clever acronyms?)

President Barack Obama implemented that legislation in 2010 by approving the Opening Doors program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its various arms around the country.

The goal is to ensure that chronically homeless people get roofs over their heads. Housing first, they call it. Then counselors can encourage formerly homeless people to confront the causes of their situation. The policy makes plenty of sense, except that as it is plays out in Sacramento, housing first is an unfortunate either-or choice.

“What they’ve done is provide permanent housing, but forgot to finance the supportive part,” said Jeff Raimundo, a Democratic political consultant who sits on the board of Cottage Housing, the nonprofit that owns the 60-unit Quinn Cottages. “The focus is getting people into a house or an apartment, rather than getting them the tools to stay in housing.”

Two years ago, Cottage Housing obtained federal financing to rehabilitate Quinn Cottages. In exchange, Cottage Housing had to forgo the requirement that tenants stay clean and sober.

No more drug testing, no requirement that residents get counseling. Zaccardi isn’t about to relapse, but worries that newcomers who move in may not stay straight and will tempt others.

“It’s affecting people who want to use this place as a stepping stone, who are chipping away at this thing called life,” he said.

At Plates2Go, a sandwich shop near the Capitol run by Saint John’s Program for Real Change, Christina Cecil picked at a salad. Her birth parents were drug users, and she spent six years hooked on oxycodone, 30 pills a day of prescription opioid.

Her adoptive parents, a college professor and an accountant, persuaded her to get out of an abusive relationship and into Saint John’s in 2010. Now 32, the mother of two is a client services coordinator who helps other women seeking to escape destructive cycles. A basic requirement is that women at Saint John’s stay off drugs and alcohol.

“When you’re first getting clean, you need somebody else helping you and motivating you,” Cecil said.

For the past seven years, Saint John’s has been receiving an annual federal housing grant of roughly $110,000 to provide housing for women and their children. In its original application, the shelter promised to provide drug and alcohol treatment and pledged that the women would remain sober.

Saint John’s isn’t about to change its policy. But chief executive officer Michele Steeb said she is walking away from the grant. Otherwise, Saint John’s no longer could insist on sobriety as a condition of remaining in the program.

Housing and Urban Development spokesman Brian Sullivan told me that while the federal government won’t exclude drug-free programs, “we have incentivized this movement toward housing first; no doubt about it.” The goal is to get people off the streets and then work on underlying causes.

In January, HUD reported that sunny California had more than a fifth of the 564,708 homeless people nationally. The feds also say California’s homeless population has declined by a greater number than in any other state, though we who live here might question that finding.

Given the public’s growing frustration, perhaps the Legislature will address the issue in the coming year. Sen. Pat Bates, an Orange County Republican, has one of the more interesting bills, Senate Bill 659.

Bates, who was moved by her visits to Saint John’s and by her work decades ago as a social worker in Los Angeles, seeks to shift some money toward programs that insist on sobriety.

“Getting people off the street is definitely a step toward recovery,” Bates said. “But if you just provide somebody a home, you’re not solving the problem.”

Nothing will happen over the objection of Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat. She, too, has been dealing with the issue for decades, since she worked as a legislative staffer. Mitchell has visited Saint John’s and was impressed. But the notion of insisting on sobriety while also getting government funding “takes us to a policy I’m trying to escape from.”

“This country went too far in linking poverty, homelessness and substance abuse, and penalizing people,” Mitchell said.

Zaccardi readily agrees that moving people off the streets is important. He hates driving past homeless men to get to his cottage. But he also has the knowledge of someone who has been there. He spent four years on the street. Getting a home is a basic step. Being able to keep it is something else, something to be proud of.