Locals, feds stepping up to confront homelessness emergency

February 9, 2021

Originally published on Capitol Weekly – February 9, 2021

After living on the streets of Venice for many months, Morris celebrated his 77th birthday in a motel room, thanks to the dedication of outreach workers at St. Joseph Center and a room made available through Project Roomkey.

This state and county program, aimed at reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission among people experiencing homelessness, relies on federal funds to provide motel rooms and supportive services to many of our patients, like Morris, who receive health care from myself and other members of Venice Family Clinic’s nine street medicine teams.

The COVID-19 pandemic removed many bureaucratic obstacles, including opportunities for opponents to halt such projects, that have impeded other homeless housing programs. While falling short of its goals, this pandemic-inspired program validated that with the infusion of federal funds and a real sense of urgency, we can house our homeless neighbors.

This seems an insurmountable goal with an estimated 568,000 people experiencing homelessness across the country. But the rapid creation of Project Roomkey in California, a new president and a Democratically controlled Congress provide new hope that the nation can – in addition to battling COVID-19 – address the national emergency of homelessness with comprehensive and effective solutions.

President Joe Biden has already vowed to develop a national strategy for making housing a right for all and committed to a “housing first” approach. This is a proven and effective strategy that he said would be “guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.”

Biden also promised to secure the enactment of U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-Los Angeles) Ending Homelessness Act. The Act calls for $13 billion in federal funds over five years, which would, among other things, create more than 400,000 additional housing units for homeless individuals. It would also provide outreach and case management resources that are critical to keeping people housed.

Among his other proposals, he would create supportive housing for seniors and disabled individuals and set a national goal of providing housing to 100% of formerly incarcerated inmates upon re-entry to society.

Whether Biden’s proposals or other proposals are the politically possible and correct solutions, the urgency is clear: Every state in the nation has a homeless population. This is not a problem unique to California.

To address our nation’s homelessness emergency, we must have a national solution that draws on the much larger federal budget and more far-reaching federal programs because these offer our best hope for solving the many challenges of successfully housing our homeless neighbors.

As we have seen, housing alone won’t solve the problem. We need trained outreach workers who can build the trust needed to encourage people living on the streets to consider an offer of shelter. We need medical and other professionals to address the mental health and substance use issues that often prevent our unhoused neighbors from seeking housing or other help.

We have found that once we earn their trust and help them address their medical issues, it’s much easier to get them to accept temporary housing as soon as it’s available.

And once they are in temporary housing, they can receive the medical and other assistance on a consistent basis, making it more likely they will complete the paperwork and other requirements to obtain permanent housing. They are also more likely to be successful in staying in permanent housing.

Solving the nation’s homeless problem won’t be simple. But the costs of continuing our current course are far too great – in lost lives and, as COVID-19 has shown, in the potential impact on our entire community’s health.

As a nation, we rallied to recognize homelessness as an emergency that needed to be addressed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As a nation, we must continue to treat homelessness as an emergency that warrants the federal attention and funds needed to make housing a right for all.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Coley M. King is director of homeless services at Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center serving nearly 27,000 people in need in the greater Los Angeles area.

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