Re-building the Housing Ladder from the ground up
Housing 100% of People, 100% of the Time
For the past two years I have been on a journey to understand and end homelessness. I’ve met with community leaders, slept in homeless encampments, and brought creative solutions like Downtown Streets Team to life here in San Francisco. This journey has led me to strongly believe that homelessness can be solved. But for us to get there cities will have to manage things fundamentally different than they are today.
Before I dive deeper, a small caveat — there is no “perfect solution” to homelessness. When creating solutions for the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the homeless, you are essentially creating solutions for the hardest group of people there is to help. With that in mind, the goal should not be to create a perfect solution, there’s never a PERFECT solution, but to envision a solution that can house 100% of people, 100% of the time. In Homelessness Solved, I present a scalable, cost-effective, system-level solution to obliterate homelessness through a re-imagined housing ladder.
Part 1 of Homelessness Solved showcases the over-all solution, Part 2 shows cities what they can do to immediately start transforming into better models, and Part 3 goes over all the major milestones we’ll go through along the way to get there.
One last caveat, if you work in homeless services, please understand this post is not meant to trivialize the challenges faced everyday in helping the homeless, but simply to outline a systemic solution for increasing our homeless housing supply and launching a new era of how homelessness is viewed in our communities.
Step 1: Divide the Homeless into Two Groups
- For whatever reason, roughly 50% of people suffering homelessness for over a year will never be able to care for themselves again without permanent free housing. This group of people is generally suffering from severe mental illness, substance abuse problems, or other chronic health problems, which cause them to never work again. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/addiction.pdf
The reason why our current system is broken, and the dirty little secret of the entire homelessness industry, is that Housing First is a failure. Or at least it fails at moving people off of government welfare programs.
We originally believed we could give the homeless free housing and they would, stop abusing substances, and move out once they got back on their feet. But 20 years later and almost all the data shows that people who get the free housing never leave, never work again, and that leaves no housing left for the next group of homeless people who need it. Thus, you see homeless advocates constantly screaming about how they need more housing because there’s nothing there for the homeless. The truth is there is housing, lots of housing, but no one is leaving it!
Fifty Percent Will never Work Again but Fifty Percent Will.
2) The other half of the homeless population is fully able and willing to work again. They aim to have independent lives and fight their way out of homelessness, get off government support programs, and move on with their lives. That’s not to say they don’t have serious issues to combat, but they are issues that can be overcome. Essentially, with homelessness we have a community split almost evenly between those who need assisted care for life and those who can be helped to get back into the workforce.
The questions that are never asked in homelessness are:
a) Should we separate these two groups up?
b) What would solutions look like for these groups if we made them today?
If we keep these questions in mind then THE ENTIRE HOMELESS SYSTEM looks much different.
Each group needs attention in different areas to get back on their feet. However in the current system, everyone is bunched together in one big cluster fuck of misguided city programs. That’s because the current system was built as a reaction to homelessness, not a solution to homelessness.
Society is always taken by surprise at any new example of common sense. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Step 2: Create Different Solutions for Each Group
Currently, we have a system that puts drug addicts, drug dealers, and the mentally ill next to newly weds who just got foreclosed. We call them homeless shelters and they’re the hallmark of all homeless solutions.
A better solution would allow individuals to self-select between those ready to re-enter the workforce and those who want to live off government services.
Group A: 50% of people who will work their way out of homelessness.
Group B: 40% of people will never work again.
Group C*: ~10% of people who will actually move between group B and group A as they go through rehab programs and try to re-gain control of their lives.
Regional Retirement Communities
For those who do not or can not work, a place to be happy
For those unable to work, we essentially want to create an amazing community for them to live. A Regional Retirement Community offers free housing, an integrated community, and crucial services for as long as someone wants. It utilizes available government land between multiple cities to create retirement communities. The benefits of doing this are exponential:
1. Availability and Scalability: We have incredible amounts of free government land to use across counties.
2. Cost Saving: We will be able to save around 70% from current Supportive Housing costs.
3. Better Services: We can create vast retirement community solutions with more activities, resources, and much more specialized care than what is currently offered.
4. Better Providers: Using one specialized provider, we can use the best provider across multiple counties, allowing all homeless populations in that region to have better professional care.
5. No NIMBYism (not in my backyard): We can create solutions without having to upset neighbors and worry about NIMBYism.
6. Increases Low-Income Housing: By creating new low income housing communities regionally, we free up our existing (and limited) low income housing inside the city.
7. New Jobs — Creates an entirely new employment opportunities for smaller cities that regional communities are near.
In short, a regional housing solution would be affordable, scalable, and provide better services than current solutions. This solution applies to nearly 50% of the homeless population.
An example of a Regional Retirement Community would be if a large plot of land was donated between San Francisco and Stockton. Then the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento could offer unlimited affordable housing for the homeless, a solution that would solve homelessness for 4 of the top 20 homeless populations in the US.
However, there are major hurdles with creating a solution that changes the status quo.
1. There is a large fear of “optics” in creating solutions that send homeless people outside of a city. Most of politics is about “optics,” and the politicians that would need to support this would be terrified of jeopardizing their careers with something that would:
1. Take away funding from local non-profit groups.
2. See said local non-profit groups throw a shit-storm.
3. See non-profit groups rally advocacy groups to join the shitstorm and attempt to shame anyone who gets in their way.
In short, the local non-profits and advocacy groups would be hurt by the lack of homelessness in the city. They would fight tooth and nail to stay significant, not see their funding get re-allocated to others, and not have to fire their employees. The goals of these organizations are not aligned with the goals of everyone else.
As an example, when a friend’s organization recently was entering a new city, there was an entrenched provider that had held a contract with this city for decades. They were awful, a poorly run organization with little outcome to show for their funding, running at 4x the costs of my friend’s organization and producing lackluster results. The Executive Director of the legacy organization had a heart of gold and everyone loved them I’m sure. So when the time came to repurpose funding from the lackluster organizations to my friend’s org, a coalition of other homeless organizations and advocates in that city rallied to support the outdated organization. Not because they’re good, but because everyone in this ecosystem is playing out for each other, not for the betterment of our overall community. So this process of getting a new provider in took years instead of months. It only happened because of A LOT of back-channeling and tactile political moves behind the scenes.
The reality is there are lots of people who live outside the city and take transit in whenever they want to visit. As long as we are providing free transportation options back in to the city, then those housed in regional communities are fully taken care of.
Low Income Workforce Housing (LIWH)
For those who want to work and get their lives on track
For the 50% of homeless who WANT TO and CAN work, Low Income Workforce Housing is the perfect solution for transitioning out of homelessness and back into the community.
These “transition centers” include free housing, vocational training, services, food, and everything in between. They are the cornerstone solution to helping someone get back on their feet.
An example would be buying up old cruise ships and retrofitting them to be temporary housing with vocation training programs, a solution former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and I worked on earlier this year. A solution that would be 95% cheaper than current workforce housing solutions in San Francisco.
Another example could be using a homeless shelter that only caters to this group alongside a vocational training center like GoodWill. Though this example is no where near as scalable or cost effective.
Cities like San Francisco try their best to create these solutions currently, however they fail because they are not separating the community and the severely mentally ill and those suffering from substance abuse get mixed in. Whenever you have some people who are not serious about getting their lives back on track mixed with others who do, the entire program suffers.
It’s like putting your child in a classroom with 1/2 children who care and 1/2 children who don’t, vs putting them in a classroom of motivated children with similar goals.
And that’s why these centers need to be safe spaces, free of drugs, alcohol, and severe mental illness. There is no middle ground when it comes to drugs and homelessness. Either you are building a safe place to inspire people or you are building something that gets devalued by every single person who breaks the rules. Transition Center must have a zero tolerance drug-free zone to succeed.
For those seeking recovery from substance abuse, anger management, and other mental health issues
The final pillar in the housing ladder is a place to help those suffering from substance abuse and/or mental health problems. A safe space for people to overcome their personal demons. This solution applies to a roughly 10% of the homeless population that struggles in between despair and trying to fight their way back to integrating into the workforce.
It’s true that substance abuse can lead people to homelessness, but for many, substance abuse is also a coping mechanism of being homeless. Those who are suffering already go even further down the rabbit hole. Substance abuse and mental illness complicate things. Having a record for violent crimes complicates things. Being put in jail complicates things.
Many people are not ready to re-join the world the rest of us live in. To rejoin our rat race and leave the homeless community behind. But when they are, there should always be a way-point for them to gravitate towards. A place to re-discover hope and believe in themselves. For many, Recovery Centers are the first step back to this world and Transition Centers are the light at the end of the tunnel for them to look forward to.
Step 3: Redefining the Culture of Homelessness
The third step is re-framing what homelessness means.
Shame the Shameful
In San Francisco, there seems to be some false pretense that having the homelessness around makes the city more gritty and real. That it’s a part of our identity of the city. To some extent, the homelessness has become part of our culture.
And there’s a huge problem with that. Homelessness IS NOT what makes a city great. Homelessness is the SHAME OF THE CITY! Homelessness does not improve anyone’s lives. It does not make the city BETTER. You are not a more well rounded person because you are near homelessness! It is a constant reminder that our system does not work, our politicians are incompetent (and probably should be fired), and our tax dollars are being ineffectively used.
What makes a city great is its values. How people treat each other. How we solve problems together. How we take care of one another. It’s the unspoken agreement. It’s what being a community is.
As beautiful as what I just said is, none of that is there when homelessness prevails and people are dying and destitute on our streets. We are all to blame, because we are allowing politicians to get away with not putting forward a better solution.
For the past 30 years in San Francisco, you can see Mayor after Mayor get on their soapbox and speak about how they will fix things and then turn around and fail. They lie about what’s happening, they put forth solutions that are un — effective and mismanaged, and then they take zero accountability. And we allow this. In the world of business we would fire this person. And then the next person would know we are serious about seeing this problem solved. If we do not hold our Mayors responsible for this than nothing will change.
Citizens pay taxes and used to solve these city problems. Private citizens should not be shamed to give more. It is not our responsibility to give money to panhandlers. If a city can not use our tax dollars to effectively help people than people should find a better way to use their tax money for civic good.
Empower to the People
We also have to assist the homeless community to move away from a disenfranchised viewpoint and move more towards a more empowered mindset. Members of the homeless community should have access to programs and help to overcome self-esteem and identity problems that go beyond what people can imagine.
We have to expect more from our programs — housing, workforce, and mental wellness. I use wellness, because this is not a mental health issue, this is about personal wellness. We need to give the homeless, the same if not better tools, that coaches are providing to all of us today. The majority of the homeless do not need a psychologist, they need something closer to a lifecoach.
Currently they can only find empowerment through 12 step programs, religion, and external forces. We need to help people find control, agency, trust, and belief in themselves as well.
The homeless people I’ve met want to see their lives improve. They want to learn new things. They want to work. They want to believe in themselves. They want people to hold them accountable. To pay attention to them. To have someone count on them. They want to be helped and pushed to get back to the life they want.
In the future, the people suffering from extreme poverty (not homelessness) will be the ones in Transition Centers in the city. And they can be some of the most inspiring and beautiful people you will ever meet in your life. They’ll be finding new meaning in life on a daily basis and engaging with someone going through it will be as uplifting as it will be comforting that your city is doing a good job.
HOUSING FIRST was always the answer, but advocates didn’t fully understand that 95% of those who received housing would never work another day in their lives. Knowing what we know now, HOUSING OPTIONS should be what we’re touting. Temporary Workforce Housing in the city or Permanent Supportive Housing outside the city. With Rehabilitation Options in-between. Take your choice.
Homelessness can be solved. The solutions are easily executable and economical. Pilots can be easily setup, studied, and evolved. We can have a working solution to homelessness for less than we spend on the same reactionary solutions that have been failing us for decades. Knowing what we know now we can make a better world for the homeless, for ourselves, and for generations to come. All it takes, is to give progress a chance.
I hope you enjoyed Homelessness Solved: Part 1. Follow this Medium post to be notified for Part 2, where I outline the first steps a city would take to implement these solutions and Part 3, where I go into new workforce and wellness solutions.