Column by Sharon Byrne as featured in this week’s Santa Barbara Sentinel
Currently, ‘housing first’ is very in vogue as the solution to homelessness: if we could just build more housing, we’d solve the problem. It’s an expensive proposition, especially here in Santa Barbara. There’s never a ‘there’ endpoint, when you’ve hit the magic right number in this model. However much you build, it’s not enough.
But I always wonder, in a town that’s 90% built-out, even if you could somehow build all the housing needed, and prioritized Santa Barbara families and long-term local homeless, what would all the newly-housed do for income? How would they buy food and basic life necessities?
Most of us land a job, and then get housing. However, getting a job is tough for a homeless individual. You need an address, ID, and a phone. It’s even harder in a town like Santa Barbara, no booming jobs-generator.
The Bakken, in North Dakota, is the present boomtown. Taco Bell there is paying people $20 an hour because the explosion of the oil drilling jobs has created huge need for places to eat, places to rent, schools for kids, and there’s not enough labor available to fill all these needs.
So we’re not the Bakken, and no boomtown lasts forever, but perhaps we could look at ways to open doors to help homeless individuals become economically self-sufficient, which leads to being able to rent a decent place.
You could make a good argument here that the US, the state of California, and our local governments make that task hard for everyone, not just the homeless. Agreed. Here, though, I am focusing on the group that has the hardest time finding employment, in a town where even those in possession of a stellar resume find it difficult to land a good job.
Those of us displaced (sometimes repeatedly) in the tumultuous tech industry of the past decade have learned that self-employment, in the form of a one-person company, is sometimes an easier route to generating income than trying to get a job. When there just are no jobs, you can invent your own, by spotting a need, and filling it. This is America, after all, where problems are often viewed as opportunities.
While there are homeless whose present state of functioning would not allow even the remotest possibility of self-employment, there are others who are sober, industrious, and already moving down that road. Aubrey walks dogs – you’ve probably seen him. He charges $5 for a 3-mile trot with your pooch, and he’s as reliable as budget deficits in Congress. He’s way under-pricing himself, but he stays busy, and generates income for food.
Marcos has a green thumb I openly envy. He spearheaded the Sally’s organic garden, and then took over Mental Health’s community garden plot on Yanonali. His produce will have you openly salivating for a crisp, green salad.
Aubrey and Marcos do not panhandle, and with nearly zero capital investment, they’ve created the ability to generate income doing something they love, which could easily become self-sustaining. Load Aubrey up with flyers, a prepaid cell phone, and fair-market pricing, and he’d have a solid dog-walking business that beats minimum wage doing work he enjoys.
Marcos similarly has enticing options to explore. He could sell the produce from the lots he’s tending (maybe with a helper or two also in need of employment) at the Farmer’s Market community table Tuesdays and Saturdays. The community table is free, and the rent on the garden plot at Yanonali is $70 per year. His bike could be rigged with a cart to transport produce to the market and ferry tools to the garden. He could alternatively decide to become an organic-gardener-for-hire, and/or sell those cool hydroponic tower gardens – ideal for high-density neighborhoods with no yard, but abundant roof space.
When we get paid for doing what we love, it’s truly satisfying. The commitment level is high. Relapses are far less likely because our investment in what we’ve created is too great.
I see individuals like these two, in the country that used to pride itself on entrepreneurial spirit, and it makes me want to think creatively about how to help them get across the finish line to self-sustenance, which then leads to good housing prospects. Perhaps some abandoned or vacant space could be converted to a small entrepreneurial incubator where individuals like Aubrey and Marcos can access some basic office necessities: shared computers, a printer, marketing and self-employment tutorials, and the like, to start a micro-enterprise. Instead of funding services with poor track records, shift some funding to tiny micro-loans, call them nano-loans, for micro-enterprises. For Marcos, $250 would easily fund used tools, a bike cart and flyers. Let some graphic arts students get community service hours in designing marketing materials for burgeoning micro-enterprises. Michael Towbes or the Fund for Santa Barbara could make a couple thousand dollars available for nano-loans. Southern California Edison provides computers for charitable causes.
Find a small space to house it, and voila. This just doesn’t seem like rocket science.
Find a way to self-sustenance, and then many things are possible.