Like many issues humans face, homelessness is as complex as we make it, and so are the solutions.
Is it about mental health? Maybe. About 50 percent of the local homeless population reported psychiatric conditions or PTSD. But plenty of people deal with mental health struggles while in a home.
Is it about substance abuse and addiction? Sometimes. About 36 percent of unsheltered residents reported health conditions related to alcohol and drug use. But there are plenty of people struggling with addiction and substance abuse under the roof of a home where they can get more consistent treatment. In a 2018 survey, 16 percent of adult SLO County residents reported that they needed professional help for mental health or substance abuse.
Is it about job training? Could be. More than 80 percent are unemployed and 30 percent cite a lost job as the primary event that led to homelessness. But it's easier to train someone for a job when they have a home.
Life is complex. Our economy is complex. Housing, or the lack thereof, is just one backstop to myriad issues that can arise when individuals navigate life in our complex economy with its range of challenges. Mental health, substance abuse, unemployment, and lack of job training—these certainly make it harder to find a stable home. When finding a home looks like the late stage in a game of musical chairs, a lot of people are going to get left out. The problem doesn't have to be complex: just fix the game. Just add more chairs.
Homelessness is, first and foremost, a housing problem. For all the talking points from our elected officials about how complex the problem is, potential root causes, where our homeless population comes from, and potential emergency measures and organizational charts that might help solve the problem, it seems like we put a lot of effort into ignoring this simple truth. Maybe that's the point? Maybe to acknowledge the housing problem would be to acknowledge that our housing market is failing, not just failing those who don't have a home, but those who do and struggle to keep it. Those who are cost-burdened by rent and can't save for the future, or go back to school, or start a business. Those who have given up trying to make life work in their hometown, with their current job, or within their current community, and move elsewhere. Homelessness is just the most poignant portrayal of this failure that touches all of us.
As much as SLO County talks about mental health, substance abuse, and job training as it relates to solutions to homelessness, the fact is that poverty, mental health, and substance abuse do not explain higher rates of homelessness. Nor does our mild climate, according to the data. According to researchers from Sightline Institute, "housing market conditions explain the most variation in rates of homelessness observed around the country." Individual risk factors matter, but "the consequences of individual vulnerabilities are far more severe in locations with less accommodating housing markets," meaning high rents and low vacancy rates, specifically. SLO County's housing market checks all the boxes for being less than accommodating.
Permanent solutions to homelessness in SLO County need to start by looking at the facts, rather than how we as individuals might feel about the problem. Our problems with homelessness, and our unwillingness to address the root causes, are no different than any other region with high housing costs. We can fantasize about how rates of homelessness are higher here than in places like Detroit simply because our nice weather attracts outcasts to living outdoors (rather than the hard truth that Detroit simply has had higher vacancy rates, lower rents, and more housing stock, making it easier to find and afford a home, despite higher levels of poverty and unemployment). But those myths just serve to deflect blame from structural conditions that we've caused—that are completely within our control to fix.
Two-thirds of our local homeless population cited the inability to afford rent as a barrier to obtaining permanent housing. How many of our housed neighbors are having a similar struggle? Treating homelessness in SLO County as an acute, emergent situation does nothing to address its chronic and systemic root causes. Using our resources to get those currently experiencing homelessness into treatment or into a home, while certainly important, does nothing to help those who will soon be forced into homelessness by the same conditions. Even "housing first'' solutions to homelessness remain a reactive response. In order to prevent homelessness in the first place, we need proactive solutions to the underlying housing market failures.
But, too often, SLO County's policymakers don't seem to be up to the task. Housing mandates are seen as a burdensome demand from the state rather than basic accountability for restrictive land use policies. Legalizing basic varieties of housing, even duplexes and accessory dwelling units, is met with resistance from the same people who claim to want to solve homelessness. Taking up the challenge of building cities that meet our basic needs is stalled by hand-wringing about manageable, and not at all new, chronic low water levels. One cannot be serious about solving homelessness in SLO County until they are willing to honestly address housing scarcity.
Homelessness is a housing problem. Any serious solution, and anyone serious about solving the problem needs to call it what it is. Δ
Kevin Buchanan is a lead organizer for SLO County YIMBY. Send a response for publication to email@example.com.