‘Housing first’ programs put roofs over Sacramento’s homeless

‘Housing first’ programs put roofs over Sacramento’s homeless

Published Monday, Oct. 27, 2008

On a gritty stretch of road in south Sacramento, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on a key part of Sacramento’s ambitious plan for ending chronic homelessness.

It is called Martin Luther King Jr. Village, and it soon will offer permanent housing to people who have lived on the streets for a year or more. Residents will not be required to get mental health, drug or alcohol treatment, although such services will be available and encouraged. Tenants will have to pay for part of their housing costs if they have income. They also will have to follow certain rules of behavior. But they will not be banned from drinking in their homes.

The "housing first" strategy is a departure from traditional approaches, which require homeless people to be "clean and sober" to retain housing. In Sacramento and across the country, the strategy has proved effective in keeping formerly chronically homeless people off the streets and out of jails and emergency rooms.

"It solves the root causes of homelessness," said Tim Brown, leader of a city and county panel working on a plan to end chronic homelessness. "It offers people affordable, permanent housing, along with the help they need to retain it and improve their lives."

Surveys suggest that more than 2,500 homeless people live in Sacramento, about 700 of whom have been on the streets for a year or more.

More than 200 of those previously "chronically homeless" people have been placed in permanent housing in Sacramento so far, Brown said. Most live in single-family homes or small complexes, and more than 80 percent of them have stayed in those residences for at least six months.

Robert Smith is one of the success stories.

Smith, 50, said he became homeless after he lost his construction job two years ago. He wandered the streets during the day and spent his nights "wherever I could find a place to sleep," he said.

With a history of bipolar disorder and a prison record, he said, "I was on my last legs, the bottom of the barrel" when he moved into a home with six other men in May. Smith is a client of Sacramento Self Help Housing, which supports the "housing first" concept.

"My life has changed," said Smith, who is studying business at Sacramento City College, tends a garden and enjoys the companionship of housemates. "Once you get stable, you have hope."

The village in south Sacramento, a project of Mercy Housing, has 80 units. It is set to welcome its first tenants next month, said Chris Glaudel, vice president of asset management for Mercy Housing. Next year, the agency, which works with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, plans to start transforming the Budget Inn on Stockton Boulevard into permanent housing, Glaudel said.

Led by incoming state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento was one of the first cities in the country to test the "housing first" concept. In 2004 Steinberg, then an assemblyman, wrote Proposition 63, a voter-approved ballot measure that provides funding for mental health services including permanent housing.

The approach now is the touchstone for Sacramento’s 10-year plan. Leaders of the effort are calling for public officials, businesses, nonprofit groups and churches, to help raise public and private funding for housing, counseling and other services.

"I personally believe in ‘housing first’ because I work directly with homeless people with severe mental health, drug and alcohol issues," said Sister Libby Fernandez of Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento. "It’s hard for change to occur unless you can change the environment. You have to get them into a safe place where they believe that their lives can get better."

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