“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
We have all heard this before, but it certainly applies to California’s seemingly intractable issue of reducing homelessness. Cities are being overrun, many millions are spent, and yet the numbers grow. Why? The issue is a complex societal issue dating back decades as the family unit started failing. It has gotten even more complicated in the 21st Century.
I read once that the best way to eat a chocolate elephant is one bite at a time. This certainly applies to the issue of Homelessness. To date, the Federal and State funding sources have been focused on Housing First, which is very prescriptive and requires way too much paperwork, especially for the smaller non-profits in our communities. They acknowledge that focusing on self-sustainability and prevention are essential strategies but provide minimal funding. Even the Governor is getting frustrated with the lack of progress, as evidenced by his recent statement, “At this pace, it would take decades to significantly curb homelessness in California.” Providing affordable housing is a critical long-term strategy, but focusing funds on this effort stifles other initiatives requiring funds for smaller bites that are “an ounce of prevention.”
One prevention-based initiative that can help reduce homelessness would be to focus on Homeless Transition Age Youth (16-25 years old) who are a “feeder system” to homeless adults living on the streets and in the woods. Well over 400,000 Homeless TAY in California are “ghosts” in our society. Some have termed out of the Foster Care system, but most have never had any Child Welfare System benefits. They are in High Schools across California and hardly noticed. Many are trying to better themselves through higher education in spite of lacking housing and suffering with food insecurity. E.g., the CSU System did a study a while ago and found 10-11% of the students were homeless. The % for Community Colleges is thought to be 19%. There are thousands of others in our communities doing whatever they can to stay afloat.
One example of a High School student is Jimmy who couch surfed at friends’ homes while in High School because of neglect and abuse at his home. He was never reported to Child Protective Services and didn’t get the benefits of being in the Foster Care System. Now that he is out of school, he has nowhere to live other than on the streets. A recent study indicated that a significant percentage (estimated at 50%) of the Homeless TAY population is likely to become homeless adults with more complicated mental health and substance abuse issues. Fortunately for Jimmy, a local non-profit embraced him. It sponsored him to get a vocational certificate at a Community College, which qualified him for a job with a living wage.
There are solutions to the Homeless TAY issue and, more broadly, the Homeless issue if the Public Sector, Education Sector, and Non-Profit Sector would partner more effectively. The Governor acknowledged this by stating, “Everybody has to do better—cities, counties, and the state included.” For example, the Federal and State Agencies providing funding for homeless programs need to incentivize prevention-based initiatives with a simple Outcome Measure of helping homeless people become self-sustaining. A target allocation of 30% of the financing to prevention-based initiatives would begin to change the paradigm and lead to fewer homeless people in the years ahead. The Community Colleges need to be proactive with outreach to the Non-Profits in the communities regarding the extensive vocational programs they have in their curriculums. The Non-Profits need to extend their traditional youth-oriented programs from 18 years old to cover up to 25 years old.
The scale of the Homelessness issue in California is daunting but not intractable if given more out-of-the-box thinking and action. Think about a different future if these 400,000-plus Homeless Transition Age Youth became productive adults! It would certainly help alleviate our shortage of labor in California while finally reducing the number of homeless adults on the streets and in the woods.
Tom Cross is a community volunteer. He retired in 1997 after working 34 years in the telecommunications field with AT&T. He began as an engineer at Bell Laboratories and advanced into numerous positions as Vice President of business services, operations, marketing & sales, finance, human resources, and as VP/GM of an 8000-person business unit serving much of northern California. He has bachelor’s and Master of Science degrees in electrical engineering and completed numerous courses in MBA programs.