Destination Health: Solving Homelessness

Last night I attended Destination Health: Solving Homelessness. Destination Health is an event series hosted by the Commonwealth Club and sponsored by Kaiser Permanente. The place was packed.

Darrell Steinberg, Mayor of Sacramento, began the night by saying he wanted an obligation to shelter the homeless written into law in California.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who speaks in a very Black-preacher kind of way, called homelessness is “the defining moral issue of our time.” He supports declaring a state of emergency around homelessness in the state of California.

Hawaii actually declared state of emergency around homelessness in 2015, Josh Green, M.D., Lt. Governor of Hawaii, told us. Hawaii has the highest per capita homeless rate in US. He also told us, “I literally view homelessness as a medical condition.” The average lifespan of unhoused person in US is 53, decades shorter than average person.

Jamie Almanza is Executive Director of Bay Area Community Services. She said homelessness is a complex problem. She stressed that, contrary to myth, people don’t want to stay homeless. Then she said, weirdly, “I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s not enough housing.” Then she described a BACS program on keeping people housed. But she left unaddressed why their housing is in jeopardy in the first place. One thing she said that was interesting is that five years ago she couldn’t get people to take her calls, and now foundations and corporations are very interested in funding her organization. This is great news.

My favorite speaker was Dr. Margot Kushel. She was incredibly straightforward: We have homelessness because of a lack of affordable housing and structural racism, the Director, UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations and UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative said. Homelessness causes and exacerbates drug problems and mental illness. Not the other way around. She pointed out the fact that increasingly older Americans are falling into homelessness. Many for the first time.

About the obligation to shelter, Kushel pushed on the point that until we solve the underlying problem of a lack of affordable housing, it’s gonna be hard to solve homelessness. Clearly we need more shelter. But New York spends $30,000 per person, per year because they implemented a right to shelter law but didn’t build more housing. If you do that you end up with people staying in shelter indefinitely.

One area of disagreement was over whether it’s ever okay to criminalize homelessness. Steinberg is for it if there is adequate shelter. Ridley-Thomas said we must reject the notion of criminalization of the poor. He pushed for a menu of options that constitute the right to housing. “Otherwise we’ll be doomed and damned by the circumstances that envelop us,” Ridley-Thomas said.

There was broad agreement that solutions to homelessness shouldn’t be rigid. One idea Kushel floated was to offer subsidies to families to take in homeless family members or move to apartments with more flexible leases. There are more options than shelter beds or permanent supportive housing.

The two best moments of the evening were when Kushel told us what she says to parents concerned about how a homeless shelter will impact them. “Your kids are watching you,” she said. They see the human suffering and are watching to see how you respond.

The other best part was Steinberg going off on local control. He pointed out that some problems are so enormous that we’re gonna override local control and put navigation centers where they’re needed. Of course there must be a standard of safety and quality. But these navigation centers are clean and well-run.

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