Prior to COVID there were 151,278 people homeless in California. In one of the wealthiest places in the world, this is fundamentally unacceptable. Those 151,278 people spend their days figuring out how to get their next meal and shower; they cannot possibly go find jobs and apartments while living on the streets. Unfortunately, this problem is about to get much, much worse. Millions of Californians have been unable to pay their rent due to job losses and reduced income caused by the covid pandemic. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation to extend the State-wide eviction moratorium until January 31st, 2021. The Eviction Time Bomb on February 1st will cause an unprecedented surge in homelessness in our state. The Aspen Institute estimates that between 4.1m and 5.4m Californians are at risk of homelessness due to COVID-related evictions. It is estimated that in Santa Clara County over 43,000 individuals are at high risk of becoming homeless in the next year. The UCLA Luskin Institute estimates that members of nearly 120,000 households (not individuals, but entire households) in Los Angeles County (including 184,000 children) are likely to become homeless at least for some time period over the next several months.
Cities have been working towards building low-income housing and permanent supportive housing, but it’s not enough. Permanent supportive housing in the Bay Area takes 4-5 years to build, and an astronomical $750,000 per unit. While expanding the permanent housing stock is certainly the long-term goal, we are never going to solve homelessness at that rate. We need places where people can sleep and get services while we wait for permanent housing to be built.
“Shelter” is an ugly word in homelessness. Politicians love being at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for big permanent supportive housing buildings. What’s more, clients themselves hate shelters; sleeping shoulder to shoulder with strangers on cots in a big room is understandably not appealing. Not only do clients not feel safe in those conditions, but there are also other important limitations: they cannot bring pets to shelters, for instance, something that is a non-starter for many clients.
We desperately need to redefine the concept of interim shelter for the homeless. If you think of housing as a continuum, there is a huge gap between tents on one end and permanent housing on the other. We need to fill that gap with temporary interim solutions. We need to do it inexpensively so it can be done at scale. And we need it NOW.
First, a little bit of education about the homeless population is in order. About one-third of the unhoused are what we call “chronic” homeless. These people usually have a mental illness, physical illness, or drug addiction that precludes them from making their own way. Sadly, they also tend to be older. These are the “crazy” ones you see on the streets, and who bother residents and merchants. These people require what we call “Permanent Supportive Housing”– a place with extensive medical and psychiatric support, as well as addiction programs.
Most people are astonished to learn that the chronic population is only one-third of the people experiencing homelessness. A full two-thirds are “transitional” or “episodic” homeless. These are people who have been homeless for less than a year. These are often hard-working, fully functional people who have fallen on bad luck. Many of them actually have a job, but it doesn’t pay enough to cover the rent. Others have experienced a catastrophic event such as job loss, divorce, or have “come out” to their parents as gay and are no longer welcome at home. Many are families. They are less visible because they don’t scream running up and down the streets; they sleep in their cars and hide quietly in corners. The transitional homeless population is where we are going to see an enormous surge starting in February.
There are important reasons why we need to get the transitional homeless into programs. Homelessness service agencies such as LifeMoves in Silicon Valley provide an impressive array of support services for the clients. They help get the clients connected to benefits such as social security and Medicaid. They get clients connected to doctors and therapists. They provide career coaching and job placement support. And they work tirelessly to connect the clients to permanent housing.
Permanent housing can come in many forms. For some, it’s being reunited with family or friends. Often the client is too embarrassed to let loved ones know that they are homeless. Services agencies can help them think through that and get reconnected. For others, it takes finding a job and an apartment in a less expensive city– a task that would be daunting without great support and coaching. For the chronic population, it means getting them placed into Permanent Supportive Housing where they can get the medical and psychiatric support they need. And of course, for many, it means finding a job and locating an apartment– maybe sharing an apartment with another client they meet, or getting one of the helpful (though very rare) federal vouchers to contribute to rent.
So there really are many paths to exit homelessness– but they all require a caring services organization to help them navigate those choices. It is far easier to administer “services” when clients are together at a shelter rather than scattered on the streets. Of course, having access to a shower, restroom, clean clothes and healthy meals gives them the “leg up” they need to chart their path forward.
I am extremely disappointed that temporary housing has fallen out of vogue in the past few years. HUD has declared that it is no longer a best practice and has eliminated federal funding support for temporary shelters. We need to invest in shelter for the transitionally homeless so that they can access badly needed support services and find their way back to a home.
Dignity Moves has developed a way to create inexpensive, FAST housing for the transitional homeless population. We use small, movable buildings that are similar in size to shipping containers, but the likeness ends there. Each building is divided into four individual dorm rooms (or divided into two larger rooms for families). The most important aspect here is that each person or family gets their own individual dorm room. This provides the safety and dignity that clients need and deserve. They are built of residential-quality materials and come with air conditioning and heating, lights, power outlets, beds, and desks. However, rather than costing $750,000 per unit, they cost less than $35,000 per unit. What’s more, then don’t take 4-5 years to build– they are rapidly manufactured and can be habitable within a few days.
Obviously, in California there is always the question of where we could find the space to put these dorms. Because these dorms are portable, we can simply borrow land for short periods of time. Developers who have a property tied up in the cumbersome and lengthy permitting process can lend us their land for a year or two until they are ready to break ground. Governments or corporations who are “land banking” a site for a project they might consider in the future can lend us land while their plans evolve. Developers will reap many benefits for lending us their land. Not only will they get lots of political goodwill (always helpful when going through the entitlements process) but likely will get tax deductions for leasing to a non-profit cause. Dignity Dorms are very “light touch” on the land…we don’t even need for it to be paved!
Dignity Dorms will be arranged in a community where homelessness services organizations such as LifeMoves can provide support services to help address the root causes of their homelessness. Clients will be allowed to bring their pets (because they have their own room the pet won’t bother others). There will be community showers and toilets and a shared dining facility. Each building will be similar in cost and portability as the dorm buildings. Clients will have an address where they can receive mail and checks. They will have a dedicated case manager working hand-in-hand with them as they make a plan to rebuild their lives.
We need to rethink the definition of housing. For many, they just need a small dorm room for a few months where they can receive support services, meals, and showers– the basics for human dignity