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July 5-11, 2006

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Marjorie Matthews and Margaret Gregg

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Taking the Long View: Marjorie Matthews, left, is director of the county's Office of Affordable Housing, and Margaret Gregg is the county's homeless coordinator. Though they acknowledge Bush's 'Housing First' strategy for fighting homelessness has led to some tough choices, they believe it can work long-term.

Housing When?

Santa Clara County has been sold on Housing First, President's Bush new homelessness mantra, but is it the right solution for Silicon Valley?

By Najeeb Hasan

BOCCARDO Reception Center is one of San Jose's first lines of defense against homelessness. The emergency shelter on Little Orchard Street in San Jose is the largest of six run by EHC Lifebuilders, and at a time when the homeless population in Santa Clara County is more than double the number of shelter beds, every available spot is critical.

But last week, officials for EHC announced that 75 of the beds at Boccardo are being eliminated, which will take a bite out of the 3,000 total beds that currently exist to serve a homeless population that numbered 7,600 at last count, in 2004. The agency says a $500,000 deficit has forced it to choose between funding the emergency beds or its transitional housing program. Its decision to sacrifice beds mirrors the newest trend in the complicated arena of homelessness prevention, which is a dizzying mix of federal, state, local and private sector interests that often operate with little or no cohesion.

This new mantra is commonly known as "Housing First," and its thesis is simple: Provide the chronically homeless with homes, and worry about the rest later. The new strategy is being aggressively pushed by the Bush administration, which is calling it the ultimate solution for ending homelessness—and a justification for cutting funding from other homeless prevention and affordable housing programs.

"I think donors in general and also government funders at federal, state and local levels are looking at longer-term solutions," says Hilary Barroga, an EHC representative. "They're saying let's put our resources there, so a lot of funders are leaning in that direction. They want to see how our services are going to make an impact, how they are going to create systematic changes. They don't want to just put a Band-Aid on the problem. For us, I wouldn't say there is a worry [that funding for shelters will be eliminated]. I think that our concern is that on a day-to-day basis, we see the need to operate shelters to give people that nightly stay."

Housing First has been getting rave reviews in several cities around the country. In five years, Philadelphia reduced its homeless population from 824 to 250; San Francisco, only a couple of years into its program, has reported a 28 percent decrease; Dallas, a 26 percent decrease.

The core argument for the strategy is financial, rather than ethical—recent studies suggest housing the chronically homeless saves the government money. The San Francisco Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness, one version of the 10-year plan the federal government has been encouraging cities to adopt, reports that even though only 20 percent, or 3,000, of San Francisco's 15,000-strong homeless population can be identified as chronically homeless, they suck up 63 percent of the city's annual homeless budget. According to the San Francisco plan, the social and health services tab for one chronically homeless person amounts to $61,000, while a permanent supportive housing—or Housing First—strategy costs the city only $16,000 for that same person. It's no wonder cities are flocking to the Bush administration plan.

Doubt in the Valley

But is Housing First the best solution for Santa Clara County, where only 35 percent of the homeless population fall into the chronically homeless category?

Unlike San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, it is far more difficult to argue that cities in Silicon Valley will be saving money, since they will bear the cost of the housing units needed for a successful Housing First program.

"Unlike San Francisco, the county doesn't have old hotels that can easily be renovated to house the homeless," says Marjorie Matthews, director of the county's Office of Affordable Housing. "We have to go to every city to ask. In San Francisco, it's a win-win kind of thing."

The county-city distinction may be why San Francisco is seeing earlier results for its program than Santa Clara County (San Francisco also has about a year's head start on its 10-year plan). San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's Care Not Cash program, which he proposed as a supervisor and which debuted in 2004, was able to pass because supervisors agreed that savings on medical and social services would translate into savings for the city. A parallel in San Jose and Santa Clara County would be impossible.

A year after Newsom's program was initiated, the numbers have been stunning—almost 800 chronically homeless people have been shifted into supportive housing and general assistance costs to the homeless have been lowered by an astonishing 73 percent, causing the Chronicle to describe the venture as San Francisco's "most significant transformation in years in the landscape of homelessness."

At the same time, Care Not Cash has plenty of critics—the program has horrified many homeless advocates by slashing the general assistance benefits of the homeless from a $410 maximum to $59 dollars a month.

In Santa Clara County, meanwhile, things are moving piecemeal, as the political capital needed to produce a more comprehensive initiative has been tough to come by. Matthews and Margaret Gregg, the county's homeless coordinator, point to small successes the county has had: a million dollar HUD grant that will create 25 Housing First units; 25 Section 8 vouchers that have been set aside, for the first time, specifically for the chronically homeless; a portion of state mental health money from Proposition 63 that will be used on the Housing First model. Altogether, the county has about 200 operating Housing First units, a far cry from the need.

Despite the difficulties and the cuts in emergency-shelter beds, Matthews has hope for Housing First.

"We're ahead of our expectations outlined in our action steps," says Matthews.

But Sandy Perry, a local homeless advocate, has a hard time believing the city and the county to get along well enough to meet their expectations.

"First of all, look at the fact that San Jose and Santa Clara County are almost always at loggerheads," he says. "They don't get along to start with; you add this in, and it's going to make it extremely difficult. Even in San Francisco, the progress has been really limited."

Perry points to the elimination of the shelters beds at the Boccardo Center to illustrate his biggest worry.

"I'll tell you the concern I have right now," he says. "The good thing about [Housing First], it gets people into housing, and after that shelters will be phased out. But what seems to be happening now is that shelters are being phased out without getting the housing, and that's not the proper solution. And my fear all along has been that the Bush administration has been pushing this to destroy the shelter system and not really finding housing alternatives."

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