By Robb Davis
(The following is adapted from opening remarks at a Davis Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum on homelessness held on April 26, 2017)
In my 25 years working in maternal and child health in West Africa and the Indian subcontinent—places of extreme poverty and exclusion—we would often talk about the challenge of delivering services to “the final mile.”
Reaching the final mile—that place where people are the poorest, where health conditions are the worst—is the costliest. It is very challenging to go the final mile. In fact, you may pay as much in the final mile as you paid for all the other miles up to the final mile combined because that’s the place of deep and intractable need. It is also the place that is hardest to reach. And I think as we talk about homelessness—the kind of homelessness that most people see and talk about—that kind of homelessness is really the “final mile” homelessness.
We’re talking about a syndrome really. A syndrome that shows itself as homelessness, as people living rough, outdoors in very difficult conditions. That kind of homelessness is often the result of a combination of many factors that include mental health challenges; addictions to some very, very powerful substances; and, as we’re learning more and more, severe childhood trauma that underlies everything that’s happened since.
And so, we have a final mile problem.
Most people know little about the vast majority of homelessness in this community because the majority of cases are situations like someone coming out of jail and needing a temporary residence to get reintegrated; or someone who lost a job and a house and rapid rehousing helps them; or schoolkids whose parents are couch surfing; or a woman fleeing domestic violence who finds help in a local shelter and moves into the next part of her life and her children’s lives. Most often we don’t hear about these cases but they do represent the majority of “homeless cases” in our community.
That homelessness is not visible—not something we see. And most of the agencies that are working on it in this community do it in a quiet and consistent way and help people in ways that never become apparent to the broader population.
The homelessness that garners our attention, based on the emails I get, is the final mile kind—the kind that is very visible and makes us feel uncomfortable. And as I said, it’s a syndrome, and we need to keep that in mind. What we’re seeing when we see people choosing to live outside in camps (that are obviously substandard for human living) is a combination of factors that we may only understand in part and do not fully grasp in terms of the way they enchain and enslave people.
Many people are asking “why don’t we do more? Why don’t we use the tools of prosecution…we should be moving these people out of the camps. What they’re doing is illegal. What they’re doing is detrimental to the community and they need to be prosecuted for that.” But many of us—including our police and even the District Attorney—would respond, “Really? Are we really going to cycle people through the criminal justice system one more time?”
We arrest them, we incarcerate them, we fine them, we put them back out on the street. They don’t pay the fines, they break probation, and the cycle continues. Where does that take us? Where does it take them?
Somewhere along the line we must acknowledge that prosecution is not a solution. It certainly isn’t dealing with the underlying causes of the behavior we want to address. So, I think we need to talk about the underlying causes because cycling people through the criminal justice system may move them out of sight and mind for a time but that is really not moving us forward in terms of dealing with the real issues that people are facing.
In Davis, we are not merely throwing up our arms and saying there is nothing we can do. We’re committed as a city to move forward with a process known as Housing First. Housing First is about helping people who are in those situations to move into housing before dealing with the broader issues they face. Housing First starts by providing an alternative to the street but then moves aggressively to deal with the causes of the homelessness. The key is to get a roof over people’s heads and then to provide wrap-around services to address the other challenges they face.
Let’s be clear, it is not a panacea. To say we’re committed to it does not make it happen. First and foremost, we live in California and so housing is at a premium in every community.
We do not currently have the beds we need to house all those in need. We do not have enough beds—even with housing assistance programs—at a price that is affordable to house people in need.
This Council, and the prior one, has set aside resources to build 90 new units—40 of which are destined for permanent supportive housing (the kind needed to house those with special needs). In addition, we have resources from a recently obtained grant from Sutter Hospital to provide housing vouchers that can help fill the need. These are a start.
But as difficult as providing housing is, it is only a first step, because once the roof is there then the wrap-around services that really are about addressing the underlying needs of the population in question become important.
And lest we think these are short term wrap-around programs, I think we need to remember that we’re dealing with people that have gone down a long road and it’s going to be an equally long road to come back. And so the services will need to be continued over a long period of time, which implies a revenue stream that we need to create within the community. In other words, this problem will not be dealt with through one-off grants over short periods of time. We need to find out how to generate streams of revenue if we’re really going to attack the challenge that we have.
Ultimately, I hope we can talk about what we can do to create these revenue streams. We need to talk about our options and make commitments. To deal with the visible homelessness that attracts our attention will take a patient and persistent process. I look forward to working with all members of the community to find a way forward to deal with these issues.