By David M. Greenwald
Is it really a coincidence that the homeless crisis in California is occurring simultaneously to the housing crisis? For a long time, we have repeated a simple maxim: we know how to solve the homeless problem—permanent supportive housing, and the real question is whether or not we have the will to do what is needed.
A few weeks ago the San Diego Union Tribune ran an op-ed from a formerly homeless man, who is now an advocate: “I am living proof that ending homelessness begins with a home.”
This is not rocket science, but the homeless issue is fraught with misconceptions and stigmatization.
John Brady is the executive director of Lived Experience Advisors, a group of homeless and formerly homeless individuals who advocate for housing and improved approaches to solving homelessness.
“The end of homelessness begins with a home. I know this from experience,” he argued.
As Brady describes it, “I have a master’s degree in business and decades of experience as a successful executive consultant and business owner. I also spent just more than a year without a safe place to call home in San Diego.”
In 2006, he was the victim of a hate crime and “never had access to the deep mental health treatment I needed. This led to a deep multi-year depression peppered with periods of self-medication.”
As Brady explains, “The experience of homelessness was traumatic, and the recovery was daunting. What I learned about myself and homelessness was powerful.”
Misperceptions about the homeless problem and homelessness pervade the system, infect, and make it far more difficult to solve.
“Prior to becoming homeless, I accepted the common belief that people had plenty of options but preferred living on our streets,” he writes, mirroring the reaction I often read or hear in the community to the homeless problem. “I soon learned that could not be further from the truth.”
He continued, “The physical and emotional toll created by living on the sidewalk quickly surpassed the meager resources that San Diego offered in terms of shelter and mental and physical health services. If fact, the one ‘services’ that was present above all others was enforcement. That was true six years ago and remains a constant today, but the balance is shifting rapidly.”
But Brady was more lucky than most.
As he describes his recovery, “I am living proof that ending homelessness begins with a home. While much credit goes to Voices of Our City Choir and others who believed in me when I could not, my real recovery began with housing.”
He explained, “My homelessness ended when I entered a San Diego Housing Commission’s rapid rehousing program and found an affordable apartment four years ago. But today we don’t have many affordable apartments like that one in San Diego, nor have we built enough housing that people can afford.”
He links the problem directly to the housing crisis.
As he explains, “We do not have housing that our first responders, teachers, nurses, small business owners and police officers — the people we rely on most to keep our community going — can afford and maintain. And we’ve built next to nothing for the single mom who cleans houses, the home health aide who takes care of our aging parents, the student buried in college debt or the person — like me — who needed some extra help.”
Many see the link between mental illness and homelessness and presume that the problem of homelessness is driven by mental illness and substance abuse. As Brady’s story demonstrate, that is part of the problem.
But then why is California the place in the nation where homelessness is increasing at such a fast rate?
Brady notes, “In Downtown San Diego, the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased by 38 percent over the last 12 months to a record high of 1,939.”
The linkage is to the rising cost of housing.
He writes, “The increase is no surprise given the rising cost of housing in our city. To rent an average two-bedroom unit, you have to earn between $42 an hour and $65 an hour.”
What that means is that there is little margin for error. One bump in the road can push someone living on the margins over into homelessness, and once there, without programs and resources, it is difficult to recover.
As he explains, “The truth is that almost all of us are one paycheck, car accident or trauma away from needing some help.”
Brady adds, “When you are frustrated by people living on the streets, remember that no one wants to sleep on concrete or have all their possessions thrown out during a sanitation raid and — most importantly — remember that housing is the only thing that will actually solve the problem.
“If you want San Diego, and our country, to exist free of homelessness, we must act meaningfully to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home. In order to do this, we need to maximize middle-income and very affordable housing on public land.”
That may not solve all of the homeless problem, but it would likely make the remaining problem much more manageable.