A Roadmap for Bold Action to End Homelessness by 2025
Bold Action Now or Else End Up Like LA
By Jeff Gorell and Frank Schillo
My homeless plan can be summarized in three parts:
- Develop & Implement a Ventura County Homeless Wrap-Around Services plan that serves as a blueprint for each temporary homeless shelter to ensure the unhoused have a pathway to becoming independent and healthy.
- Implement Martin vs Boise plan that ensures data-backed temporary interim housing placements are located using a “Circles-on-Map”-based approach. Doing so ensures our communities are safe while the unhoused are cared for and rehabilitated back into society.
- Expand the grants team and pull down state and federal grants for services and homeless initiatives that we fail to currently obtain.
Homelessness is the human crisis of our time. In Thousand Oaks alone, homelessness has grown by 48% since the last annual point-in-time (PIT) count. County-wide that number is even higher. The suffering is beyond measure. We must, as a community, commit to bold action now to end homelessness by 2025. To do anything less would be inhumane. But there is a way.
A landmark federal court case, Martin vs. Boise, spells out what cities and counties are prohibited from doing to address homelessness. The 9th Circuit case was not taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court and therefore is now the law of the land, restricting in many ways local communities’ ability to act. The case also provides a clear roadmap that, if followed with bold and rapid action, could allow Thousand Oaks to end homelessness. But it requires leadership and coordination at all levels of local government.
The Boise roadmap is based upon formulas, and those formulas become more and more expensive and impossible to achieve each day as our homeless population increases. Every day that passes, we slip closer to finding that we are simply unable to succeed. Such is the case in Los Angeles where the most recent PIT count exceeds 65,000 homeless. To avoid this destiny, we must act immediately.
The Boise court holding prohibits enforcement against sleeping in public places or encampments by local government unless a community offers those who are experiencing homelessness a “placement” and “services” to help them get back on their feet. We all can agree that we do not wish to criminalize simply being homeless. The placements are beds – bed space in a variety of environments from shelters to Operation Home Key rooms to supportive or transitional housing. The services that are contemplated are wrap-around mental health, addiction treatment, job training and other levels of government and non-profit support. Many of our homeless have deep issues of addiction, PTSD, lack of employment and mental illness. These must be addressed with care.
According to the federal court, when a community creates and makes available placements and services, and does so in proportion to the number of local homeless population in the most recent point-in-time count, the community may be allowed then, and only then, to enforce against sleeping in public and remove encampments. The key here is to create a comprehensive system that works for the homeless, and is also supported by the local neighborhoods being asked to host a shelter. In the places throughout America where this approach has worked, local leaders have been able to earn the support of residents by creating Boise case-approved enforcement circles around the shelters. We call them “circles on a Map.”
Circles on a Map – If a neighborhood agrees to host a shelter and its accompanying support services, a circle is drawn on a map around the shelter. The size of the circle is determined by the number of beds in the shelter as a ratio to the most recent point-in-time count. The more beds and services, the larger the circle. Importantly, city and county officials must commit to intense enforcement within the circle assuring local residents that engagement teams, including mental health practitioners, social workers and law enforcement, will be present to strictly enforce no sleeping in public or encampment laws. Those homeless nearby would be strongly encouraged to avail themselves of the shelter’s beds and services or be asked to move outside the circle.
Another community or city might host an additional shelter, perhaps with a few more beds than the first. In that case, the circle on the map around the placement location would be larger. Similar to the shelter across town, city and county officials would commit to providing sustained, intense enforcement within the circle, urging homeless individuals to avail themselves of the beds and services or leave the circle.
To work, the system must not be a façade or sham. The shelters must have the appropriate wrap-around services, therapy and support to truly help homeless bounce back. Additionally, we will need to expand our local ability to respond to mental health illness and crisis. But conversely, those in the shelters must obey the rules and laws and must participate in the services to make progress. If they do not, they must leave the shelter and may not sleep in public inside the circle on the map.
When done appropriately, communities or cities without a circle on the map around them eventually raise their hand and ask to host a shelter. We see in communities where this has been organized and enforced thoughtfully that neighbors begin to invite shelters rather than oppose shelters proposed nearby. But only where intense enforcement is sustained, as promised.
Over time, as additional shelters and services are brought online, the communities and cities will create enough overlapping circles on the map to cover the entire county. At this stage, there are enough beds and services for the PIT count population to be offered support, and there is intense engagement and enforcement in Thousand Oaks and countywide to be able to successfully win back our public places – our streets, underpasses, creek beds, parks, open spaces, and recreation areas. Most importantly, those experiencing homelessness have the opportunity and quality support to rebuild their lives.
Circles on a Map is not inexpensive. Ventura County and City governments will need to work together to pull down state and federal resources, including grants, to help support the beds, services and enforcement needed to comply with Boise. But our county in particular has not been as effective in obtaining grants as they should be. Too many millions of dollars are left on the table, and our state and federal tax dollars are going to other cities and counties. By example, a number of counties have received mental health grants to pay 100% of the cost and operation of Therapeutic Transport Vans (TTV). These are 3-person vans operating around the clock every day that can be dispatched to 911 emergency calls when the issue relates to a mental health crisis. With a mental health practitioner and a peer onboard, they can diagnose, prescribe, and transport individuals suffering from mental health crises, including within the homeless community. Right now that engagement too often falls to sheriffs and police who do not have mental health training and who are sidelined from other crime-fighting calls for hours addressing a challenge that often has little to do with public safety.
We will also need to build teams of non-profit partners who, much of the time, provide more intimate and more efficient support than the government in addressing the sensitive issues surrounding homelessness. For example, affordable housing providers like Many Mansions, the Area Housing Authority, and others have already developed and are currently developing permanent supportive housing throughout Ventura County. Getting individuals off the streets and out of encampments and into these interim housing facilities will result in significantly reducing the visible and invisible homelessness in our community.
Our military veterans are experiencing homelessness at a higher rate than others. Thankfully, there are even greater federal grant resources to help house and support the VETERAN homeless. And amazing organizations, like Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, are developing plans to build placements and services for veterans all in one place, perhaps on property currently under the control of our local Navy bases.
Because Martin vs. Boise is the seminal law of the land as it relates to addressing homelessness, we must either take bold actions within its restrictions, or we are left with few other true options. What we can’t do, is continue to play it safe and whistle past the graveyard. Each additional homeless person that is added to the local population increases the work that needs to be done, increases the money required to address the problem, and makes our “circles on a map” smaller and smaller. Eventually, we will become like Los Angeles and simply unable to ever comply with Boise. For our kids’ sake, and all others who want to see a bright future for Ventura County, we refuse to sit by and let that happen. Join us in taking bold action now to end homelessness by 2025.
(Jeff Gorell, a former legislator, deputy mayor, and California Lutheran University public policy teacher, is a candidate for Ventura County Supervisor, 2nd District. Frank Schillo is a retired Ventura County Supervisor from Thousand Oaks and is founded Many Mansions, a non-profit that provides affordable and transitional housing solutions)