Column by Sharon Byrne
The C3H Homeless Summit was a mixed bag. The parts that were good were very good. And the off bits were unfortunately pretty off-putting, especially to the camp that needs to be wooed to the table: the business community.
They brought in an all-star cast: Becky Kanis, of the 100k Homes national campaign, Phil Mangano the former Homeless Czar under Bush and Obama (briefly), and reps from Pasadena and Fresno achieving dramatic results in housing chronically homeless individuals. Finally we seem willing to learn from those who are achieving success, a tactic called ‘Legitimate Larceny’ by Kanis. If it works, use it here.
There was the gentlest nudge from both Kanis and Mangano that Santa Barbara could be doing better at housing people. The county has fewer homeless than national averages, but the city, rapidly glossed over, has far more.
Kanis started by cleaning up Times Square in New York. She went to all the providers in homeless services to enlist them, and ended up moving forward with an unlikely team of the Business Improvement District and the police. She got results.
Refreshingly, this was one of the key messages hammered home. Don’t measure success by meals served or nights of shelter provided. Measure it by the number of homeless housed. Tackle the chronically homeless instead of the low-hanging fruit of those easier to house. Use scattered-site housing rather than shelters. Get results.
Mangano should have been a fantastic speaker, but threw out hyperbolic language on the national disgrace of homelessness, co-opting the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. in declaring that abolishing homelessness was akin to abolishing slavery and racial discrimination. He talked about using the language of business and changing the verbs re homelessness. Don’t manage the problem (thus perpetuating it). End it. He had clearly read every business-lingo-laden, self-help book out there, and tried to weave their memes into his speech. It didn’t come off as a coherent narrative, and affronted some business people to the extent that they left, especially when he took aim at ‘myths’ of homelessness: build it and they will come, homeless choose this lifestyle, and they’re not ‘from here’. He advocated using a customer-oriented approach with homeless. They don’t want programs, protocols, or pills. They want a home. So give them one. Have the community set the standard on housing the homeless, not the service providers. Now, how you sell that to service providers and everyday people busting their humps to pay rent…he didn’t say.
“Protest Bob” Hanson, the perennial homeless advocate, shouted out, “Homelessness is real! Ending it is unreal!” That produced an awkward silence. Sensing he’d struck a nerve, Bob tried that a few more times. He might be onto something. There are some that do quite well off the continued perpetuation of homelessness. Kanis called these ‘status quo mongers’, and gave permission to show them the exit route with ‘collaboration is over-rated.’ Move forward with those who can solve the problem.
The real agenda for the night was to get everyone on board with the Housing First model. Data purportedly supports this model, with housing retention rates at 90% a year later.
But the Big Frickin’ Wall that has to be scaled here went largely unaddressed: where does this housing come from? Which made me wonder: should a national problem be punted to local jurisdictions to solve? California is hosting 20% of the nation’s homeless, way ahead of New York at a distant 11%. So what is California’s responsibility to migrating homeless? And WHERE do we put housing for a housing-first model in Santa Barbara? Clearly, the county is the big player here, but land just isn’t cheap and plentiful in these parts. So while we’re finally learning from other communities about what works, that Big Frickin’ Wall of housing still looms large.
The good news is the approaches to solving the problem to homelessness are getting more realistic, data-driven, and directed to achieving results. The days of just providing humanitarian aid while leaving homeless people largely in place seem to be coming to a close. The bad news is that the solution is, not surprisingly, housing, in a community already carrying more than its fair share of homeless, saddled with a low rental vacancy rate and a high cost-of-living.