Yolo PD: Prop 47 Offering Solutions to Homelessness

Tracie Olson speaks at the Vanguard event, In Search of Gideon, in November 2017

Proposition (Prop) 47 has been blamed for a lot of problems, the most recent being a purported “explosion of homelessness” in Woodland, as recently reported by District Attorney Jeff Reisig. 

By Tracie Olson

To the contrary, biennial data from the Yolo County Homeless and Poverty Action Coalition, which conducts a point-in-time survey of people identified as experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, points to homelessness decreasing countywide and in Woodland since 2009.  (See http://www.yolocounty.org/home/showdocument?id=41677)

Of course, point-in-time surveys have limitations because a running count of homelessness will always yield higher results.  Further, if asked, the community would say that the homeless seem to be much more visible than ever before.  Perhaps this is due to the “frequency illusion,” where the thing you’re now paying attention to seems to crop up constantly. Perhaps it is because the homeless are no longer living in the same numbers along the railroad tracks, where they tended to blend into the background more easily.

Regardless, what cannot be debated is that Prop 47 is already responsible for sending millions of dollars to Yolo County for the purpose of rehabilitating low-level offenders.

While prison may hide a person from society for a short period of time, it is not the solution to homelessness. 

Taxpayers pay about $71,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison, with a very poor return on investment for those with long term mental health and addiction issues.

In November 2014, the voters said enough-is-enough, approving Prop 47 in overwhelming numbers.  

One of the primary purposes of Prop 47 was to take away from prosecutors the discretion to send low-level drug and theft offenders to prison, thereby focusing prison spending on violent and serious offenses.

Prop 47 is also one of the few criminal justice reforms that comes with money to implement rehabilitative programs.

The cost savings associated with Prop 47 and decreasing the state’s prison population was calculated to be in the millions of dollars.  Prop 47 mandated that the Board of State and Community Corrections allocate 65% of this savings for mental health and substance use treatment in order to reduce recidivism, with the money to be distributed to counties through a competitive grant process.

In November 2017, Yolo County was awarded almost $6,000,000 of Prop 47 money to implement Steps to Success.

Thanks to a Health and Human Services Agency’s (HHSA) successful grant application, Yolo County received almost $6,000,000 to be spent over a 38-month period to implement a new program called Steps to Success.

Steps to Success provides intensive case management and mental health and substance use treatment services to individuals whose criminal charges are now misdemeanors.  As part of a comprehensive approach to rehabilitation, a portion of the Prop 47 grant money is earmarked to help participants secure housing.

“Proposition 47 was designed to reinvest money saved in the criminal justice system into the treatment and care of the issues that lead to criminal justice involvement and homelessness,” stated HHSA Director Karen Larsen.  “If done right, we have the opportunity to reduce criminal justice involvement and homelessness for some of our residents who are struggling the most.”

Steps to Success recently kicked off, benefiting from the input and support of every major law and justice county agency as well as the community based organizations CommuniCare and Empower Yolo.

Yolo County is a leader in implementing programs to address homelessness that actually work.

A 2014 example is HHSA’s Bridge to Housing program that moved 65 homeless individuals from encampments along the river in West Sacramento into a motel for four months, providing comprehensive case management support services to remove barriers to permanent housing under a housing-first model.

Housing-first models recognize that a homeless person must be able to access safe living arrangements before being expected to stabilize, improve health, reduce harmful behaviors, or increase income.

After one year, almost two-thirds of the Bridge to Housing participants remained engaged with services and about half had secured and maintained permanent housing.  Bridge to Housing has been recognized as one of the best programs in the state for counties working to find permanent housing for its homeless.

Prop 47 is offering solutions to homelessness; $6,000,000 of them, to be exact.

While not the same as Bridge to Housing, Steps to Success is itself an important program poised to fill large gaps in the county’s current continuum of care for its justice involved population.

By working together and utilizing Prop 47 funding wisely, our residents will be healthier and safer, which benefits us all.

Tracie Olson is the Yolo County Public Defender

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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