At this moment in time, we have spent nearly one billion dollars on affordable housing and what we see on our creeks and rivers is a substantial increase in human suffering living outdoors in haphazard tents and cardboard coverings. Exposed to the elements, predators, infestations, disease, and denied the simplest of comforts, we wait for housing to be built.
And when permanent supportive housing is built, it is built at an average cost of $850,000 per door. This does not include the ongoing expenses of property management services, maintenance of the building, or the necessary and exceptional services that must accompany the residents in order to make the building and surrounding neighborhoods successful.
We Need a Better Transition Plan
Housing options seem to be a one-off collection that may or may not include the services needed for each individual client. Housing starts with B, goes to T and back to H. There is no straight line of success for housing, no plan of advancement through a confusing system. In fact, someone who is unhoused hardly knows where to begin asking questions such as “How to do I start the process (when there isn’t one) and most importantly — how will I know when I am successful?”
In visiting and exploring two downtown permanent supportive housing locations, I’m reminded that, often, the residents don’t stay in their rooms. They leave at night to sleep outside because it’s too quiet. They sleep on the floor because the bed is not comfortable. Sensors must be installed to remind residents not to move too far away from the stove while it is on. And a fire fighter mentioned to me that a resident was pushing a grocery cart through the hallway while it was on fire. Moving directly from a tent to an $850,000 apartment can re-traumatize a resident and exacerbate PTSD. In addition, acclimating them to their new surroundings takes time and planned adaptation. We need a better transition plan. All this while we wait and hope for building.
What is Missing is an Incremental Ladder of Housing Success
Instead of waiting years for more structures to be built, how could we even ever so slightly improve the conditions of the people we see who are suffering living on the streets? In psychology, there’s a term we use called meeting the client where they’re at. Attempting to skip the therapeutic process and immediately get to the end result leads to unexpected results such as defiance, anger, depression, and confusion on the part of the client. The same can be true for someone who’s lived on the streets in a tent for many years and is immediately brought into an apartment with four walls, a bed, appliances, and rental contract rules.
Why not meet the client where they’re at? If we can incrementally make their lives just a little bit better, why not? Why wait years for buildings, if we can act right now and make their environment incrementally better?
PHASE I — Temporary Tents & Tiny Homes at County/City Land
If our clients are living in tents, let’s meet them where they’re at. Let’s ask them to move in their tents, in their communities, with their pets to one or three locations of the city or the counties preference.
Those locations will offer better protection than sliding down a creek bed and they will be protected from predators. We can stop the constant fires and the degradation to the environment on the waterways that go to the Bay. We can stop the infestation. We can provide PO boxes, showers, and allow the nonprofit organizations and churches to find their clients in one location. Making it both easier for city services, county services, and nonprofit services to reach clients immediately, where they are at.
Are tents a permanent solution? No. It is a way to improve their quality of life incrementally and immediately. But tents are one rung on the Ladder.
The next step on the Ladder is to gradually move folks from tents into temporary tiny homes at the previously chosen locations. They are temporary because we don’t expect folks to stay at these locations forever. We expect to be able to work our way out of business within six years and house people in permanent locations.
Arnold Schwarzenegger recently purchased 25 tiny homes in Los Angeles for $10,000 apiece and they fit two people. We can reuse these tiny homes later once we have worked ourselves out of business.
The next rung on the Ladder is a variety of sub services once residents have become stabilized with housing. Services will include rehabilitation, mental health support, community jobs, and job training.
PHASE II — Permanent: Assisted or Independent Voucher
The next transition on the Ladder will choose between assisted permanent housing or independent permanent housing with San Jose rental vouchers.
A quick comment on vouchers. We have nonprofit organizations that offer temporary, short-term vouchers for rental assistance. We also have a wonderful program called section 8 from the federal government which assists with rental payments. The section 8 program is cumbersome and burdensome for both the applicant and the housing provider and the most challenging part of section 8 is the incredibly long wait time to be approved as an applicant. San Jose can do better, and we can provide our own rental voucher program and stop waiting for section 8 to help.
The assisted permanent housing will include a wide variety of choices. Tiny homes, home key motels, rehabilitation, mental health assistance and evaluation, group homes, dormitory-style, and community living. This assisted permanent housing will have wraparound services and use the housing models we already have in place.
Or folks will be assigned to independent permanent housing using the San Jose rental voucher program. They will be able to choose between rentals, mobile home parks, tiny homes, community living, and other options at their choosing.
And of course, the final rung on the Ladder will be the permanent supportive housing (PSH) and we can help developers manage their costs, because if we do, indeed, have 10,000 unhoused people in Santa Clara County, we will not be able to fund an $850,000 door per person. Housing stabilization is critical, and we must have the services to support the residents. And in supporting the residence we can also supporting the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Incremental Ladder of Housing Success works while we wait for more housing to be built. And in six years, when we have worked our way out of business and no one is in a tent and no one is at the temporary locations, there will be more housing because we are planning for it right now.
Irene Smith for San Jose City Council D3, 2022, FFPC# 1439434. To donate to her grassroots campaign, mail funds to P.O. Box 90372, San Jose, CA 95109.