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The Contra Costa Inter-Jurisdictional Council on Homelessness recently issued an advisory on “key components” of the county’s use of more than $1.4 million of new federal funding intended to prevent homelessness and to find housing for those who lose it. This money was part of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funding for homeless programs. This new money, a National Public Radio report stated, would be “a big push in a new direction” in contrast to traditional programs that provided “food and shelter.” See NPR
This “Housing First” approach fits well with current Contra Costa County homeless programs, as described in the county’s five-year plan (2001-2006) and 10-year plan (2004-2014). The latter states, “First and foremost, they (the homeless) need HOUSING! Despite their different histories and their multiple needs, homeless people all need housing, which provides for them, as it does for everyone, a base of stability and security.” See “Ending Homelessness in Ten Years”

Not surprisingly, those fortunate enough to get housing through the county’s homeless housing program enjoy their new-found “stability and security.” Although it is probably an extreme example, the 2004 document cites the Shelter Plus Care program for those with serious disabilities in which 87% of the program’s tenants remained housed after 1 year and 79% remained housed after 5 years.

While the Housing First approach helps get some homeless people off the streets and is likely to reduce some use of emergency services and hospitalization, it is a large public expense that carries significant administrative costs. Likewise, the key components of spending the new federal funding, as described by the Council on Homelessness, involve using all of the money strictly for “homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing activities.” SeeFunding.

With the county’s current approach, when the money is gone, there are likely to be even more people expecting service from the homeless system, but even fewer resources to serve them. And, if the county uses the new money only for the Council’s key components, then it misses an opportunity to invest in skills-building and employment-generating programs such as offered by Saffron Strand. Such programs may be allowed to be funded, as the funding guidelines are more flexible than the Council on Homelessness would have us believe. See Overview

Programs such as those offered by Saffron Strand can help the homeless get or re-gain gainful employment, lift their income levels, and enable them to afford non-subsidized housing. Saffron Strand encourages economic independence, not ongoing, everlasting dependence. The object of Saffron Strand programs and services is to get the homeless out of the homeless system and back into their communities as productive members of society.

It would be encouraging if county authorities at least considered putting a few if the new federal eggs in a new or different basket. Otherwise, how can we expect anything other than the same old omelet?

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