A four-member panel of federal, county and local leaders kept coming back to one theme during a town hall on homelessness Monday night: Nothing will change without collaboration.
The Tracy Community Homelessness Task Force, made up of churches and nonprofit agencies, hosted the conversation at City Hall. Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom, who helped found the task force, hosted panelists Rep. Josh Harder, San Joaquin County Supervisor Kathy Miller and Adam Cheshire, who administers homeless initiatives for the San Joaquin Continuum of Care.
“The focus is on solutions,” Ransom said of the town hall, which attracted more than 80 residents. “No one’s proposing anything at this point except to find out what the best solutions are for our city. And quite honestly we need to move quickly because we don’t have a place for people to go. We need to figure out what our short-term solution will be and what our long-term solution will be.”
The San Joaquin Continuum of Care, an agency committed to marshaling resources to end homelessness, released data from a census of the homeless carried out in January called the “Point in Time Count.” Cheshire reported that there are 2,629 homeless people in the county — 1,558 of whom are unsheltered. Volunteers in Tracy counted 155 men, women and children on the streets.
“In simpler terms, the reason that we have a lot of homeless people is that we don’t have enough homes,” he told the crowd. “The California Housing (Partnership) Corp.’s recent report said that San Joaquin County needs approximately 25,000 new rental homes — so pretty much multifamily homes — in order to meet the current demand. I don’t think we have enough construction workers right now. I don’t think we have enough lumber!”
Miller, who heads the county’s task force on homelessness, talked about housing affordability.
“The median value home in Tracy: $456,000,” she said. “The median monthly housing cost in Tracy for 2017 was $1,883. That’s just for housing. But the median rents this March was $2,272. That shows you what’s happening with housing costs.”
Harder talked about the “skyrocketing” cost of housing in the Central Valley and about a bill he co-sponsored in Congress to fund services that go with providing more housing.
“One of the first things that I did, is I put forward a bill with Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the Fighting Homelessness (Through Services and Housing) Act,” he said. “What that bill does is it provides $750 million a year to our counties and cities throughout the country to make sure that we’re actually creating those supportive housing services to make sure that people can set off the streets and into an affordable house. And also make sure that they have the support services that they need, be that substance abuse, be that mental health.”
One of the attendees, Pete Mitracos, said he believed the premise that the cost of housing was somehow responsible for homelessness was all wrong and that allocating more money to combat the issue was not going to work. He said mental health and drug addiction were more likely causes, in some cases making homeless people dangerous to others.
“There are folks who want to get the help they need, but we don’t have enough support services for them in San Joaquin or Stanislaus County to actually make sure we can get folks back off the street,” Harder responded. “So I hear you that throwing more money at a problem isn’t always the solution, and absolutely we need to do something for folks that are a danger to others, but there’s a lot of people — especially in the valley where we don’t have near enough doctors or physicians of any type, let alone enough mental health practitioners. That’s one of the things that we absolutely need to do a better job of, to make sure that we aren’t letting the groundwork go, to make sure that these people are getting the root cause of their issue treated as soon as possible.”
Miller reiterated that housing is a key issue, citing a program available to the 140 military veterans known to be living unsheltered in the community — Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing, which offers Section 8 housing vouchers through the VA.
“There’s a recognition that without controlling real estate, without controlling the units, we are finding it really unlikely that landlords are going to support the system that Section 8 is designed to create,” he said. “That person’s homeless, struggling with certain issues, isn’t going to be able to pay the asking rent. But if Housing Authority can come in and support that and pay a portion of that, that’s going to get that person off the street. If a landlord is unwilling to rent to that veteran, for a lot of reasons, then the system kind of falls apart.”
Another attendee, who identified himself as a veteran who has been periodically homeless, said that the requirements of some government programs for rent assistance and other resources make his situation worse, because he is cut off if he makes more than $27,000 a year, which amounts to $2,250 a month — $22 less than the median monthly Tracy rent amount Miller referenced.
“There’s a program that says you can get this help but you can’t make more than this. We are deincentivizing people from making more money, and that is ridiculous,” Cheshire responded.
He went on to describe how the federal government decides how much rent support to give people.
“Department of Housing and Urban Development says, ‘We set fair-market rent for people in your area and that’s how we base how much money we put in a location.’ The fair-market rent for San Joaquin County — $790,” he said as the audience broke into laughter. “I wish I was joking. For a one-bedroom apartment, $790 a month. Where can you get an apartment — in the most horrible part of Stockton!? You can’t find a place in Tracy for that.”
Miller said coordination between entities to help the homeless was sometimes hard to come by.
“It’s not just that the service providers are operating in silos, so are all the government departments,” she said of a study the county task force conducted about available resources. “A program that’s administered through the county’s Community Development Department, the folks that are in the Human Services Agency aren’t necessarily even aware of that program. The same thing goes in cities.”
Harder said that cooperation is needed to successfully confront homelessness.
“The first thing we can do is what we’re doing now: make sure that every single part of our government — from our City Council to our county supervisor to our state to our federal government — is working hand in hand to make sure that we are coordinating the care that they need. Not giving somebody a bus ticket, telling them they are somebody else’s problem,” he said. “The second is to make sure that we are actually giving those services that are needed.”
Cheshire said that establishing emergency shelters, with service providers on site, would lead to a reduction in the rate of unsheltered homelessness. He pointed to Lodi, which has a shelter and has fewer homeless men and women on the street than Tracy — 139 in a city of 65,000 compared with 155 in a city of 93,000.
“Really amongst the many, many solutions that we need to bring to bear in order to solve the many, many problems for all the folks that are out there, emergency shelter is one of those,” he said. “Transitional housing, where people can come from that emergency shelter, do something to get off drugs and get stable mentally, and then get into permanent housing, is another. Bringing all these things to bear and collaborating through the Continuum of Care, through our elected officials and our partners in cities, is really the way that we’re going to make this happen.”
Miller said that was reinforced by the local findings.
“Whether it was encampment cleanups. Whether it was trying to connect people to services. Whether it was writing successful applications for funding,” she said. “The No. 1 thing we found that led to success was collaboration. We had to stop just caring about what went on in our own little circle of our atmosphere that we were in charge of. We had to stop that. We had to start looking at the bigger picture and really approach this from a team that’s all San Joaquin.”
Ransom said the Tracy Community Homelessness Task Force has tried to gather information about preventing homelessness, rehousing, substance abuse, mental health and chronic homelessness. She said she was grateful that the City Council had established a subcommittee to work on the problem — comprising Ransom and Councilman Dan Arriola — and reiterated the need to work with the panelists and others around the county.
“These solutions take resources. Resources that really we’re not prepared for, so we have to get help,” she said. “Really we’re looking for: What are the solutions that we know are out there? And also: What’s the best fit for our community? Because not everything is a one-size-fits-all.”