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No single right answer for homeless shelters

We hear all the time that California is unable to handle homelessness, whereas other places are capable. So it was interesting to see two recent articles that challenge that conventional wisdom. CalMatters posted an article that compared and contrasted Texas' approach with California's and the Sacramento Bee published a piece based on  another CalMatters article (Marisa Kendall, "What can capital, California learn from large Texas homeless shelter?", Sacramento Bee, July 2, 2023) about San Antonio's Haven for Hope, a facility that has been claimed to be a panacea for what ails California.

Let's start with the state-level stuff. Based on the most recent (2022) point-in-time count data, CalMatters says Texas has reduced its homeless population by 1/3 over the last decade, whereas California's homeless population has risen by 43% over the same period. California has recently added another 22,500 to now total 173,800 unhoused individuals. CalMatters attributes the recent California increase to economic hardships among the poor, coupled with astronomical housing costs. If the playing field was level, that would be a dramatic difference. But the playing field is NOT level.

CalMatters say Texas is able to build plenty of housing because the state does not have an environmental protection law like California does. To be fair, any savvy developer can whip through California's environmental protections with absolutely no problem, though that does require knowing what you are doing. But it does take some time and paperwork. Meanwhile, in Texas there are NO zoning requirements in unincorporated areas. Developers can bypass a lot of savvy thinking, time and paperwork, unlike here. Guess where Austin's spiffy new homeless housing is located - outside the city limits. Also, Houston doesn't have a zoning ordinance. It's Texas' largest city, it has a strong Mayor and gets a TON of federal money for homeless housing. In 2021 Houston got grants equal to  $14,483 per unhoused person, while L.A. (with 1.5M more people) got the equivalent of $2,386.

The real kicker, though, is that California has to abide by the 2018 Boise decision (Martin v. City of Boise), the one that allows homeless encampments on public property if shelter beds are not available. That court decision is binding in the 9th circuit court of appeals, which covers AK, AZ, CA, ID, HI, MT, NV, OR, WA and the Northern Marianas. Where is it NOT binding? Every other state, including TX. Because the Boise decision doesn't apply, homeless camping is a crime in Texas, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Turning to the Haven for Hope shelter, the CalMatters investigation left us wondering if it is truly the miracle cure that some people here pine for. The facility operates as a sobriety institution: get clean, get a bed, get rehab services and get a job. And it acquired a pretty good track record for getting people off the streets and keeping them off the streets. By now, though, some of the sheen might be wearing off. The facility is very crowded. It hosts 1,600 people, or 85% of San Antonio's homeless population, in bunk-bed dorm rooms of 80 people per room along with a community room where up to 200 people sleep on mats on the floor next to each other. That's a little reminiscent of California's once-famous prison-crowding problem. Like the rest of Texas, San Antonio doesn't let people live on the streets; that's a crime there. There is really only one choice for unhoused individuals in San Antonio, so it is no surprise that so many people use the Haven for Hope shelter.

“Haven for Hope has not solved homelessness in San Antonio,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Rich Desmond, who visited the campus in 2021 and tried to incorporate parts of the model into programs in his own district. “But they have certainly done a much better job, I think, than most places in California.”
Marisa Kendall in "A Texas city shelters nearly all homeless residents in one place. It’s turning heads in California" ( 

In conclusion, comparing Texas' approach to homelessness to California's approach is invalid, something of an apples-to-oranges contest. Instead of choosing one place over the over, it is more useful to realize that there are lessons to be learned from solutions tried ANYWHERE. Sacramento County has been milling about, grasping at straws and succombing to the political antics of others for a long time. There are signs that it may be turning the corner now and shifting to a best practices approach that builds on actual successes experienced elsewhere. We hope that's so, because our unincorporated nowhereland deserves better than being on the losing end of the homelessness politicial chicanery practiced by the City of Sacramento and their friends.

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Volunteers preparing sleeping mats at Haven for Hope {Photo Credit:}


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