Traditional homeless shelter vs. permanent housing

May 14, 2014
Dan Carpenter

Dan Carpenter


Two overriding concerns are prevalent when addressing the homeless situation in San Luis Obispo. How do we maintain the health and safety of our businesses and residents while at the same time providing a dignified path of self-sufficiency for our less fortunate citizens?

The majority of my colleagues on the San Luis Obispo City Council believe appropriating $250,000 towards the construction of a building at 40 Prado Road for a new homeless service center is the answer. I disagree and don’t believe it’s the best use of your taxpayer dollars.

It should concern you that to date, no other city has appropriated general fund dollars for this “regional homeless shelter.”

Many would like you to believe this will be a regionally supported facility, but we all know SLO is already a mecca for the transient homeless. Building a state of the art brick and mortar monument will only illuminate the attraction. What’s the incentive for other cities in our county to provide a shelter when this major facility is located within a few miles?

Our police chief has validated the increase numbers of transient homeless population drifting through SLO and documented the significant behavioral impacts this population has discharged on our community. The message is out across this country…..come to SLO where we are homeless friendly. It’s no longer “build it and they will come,” rather “build it and more will come.”

Let’s invest our local resources in those individuals who are committed to being accountable and work towards self-sufficiency and not those that have migrated here looking to temporarily draw on this community with no intention of being a productive member of society.

A paradigm shift and growing trend across this country is to not build transitional shelters. The federal homelessness policy is a model that supports primarily housing-based solutions. A national effort to reduce homelessness through a plan that promotes rapid rehousing resulted in a 4 percent reduction in homelessness according to the 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report made to congress.

The rate of recidivism is reduced significantly when individuals are placed immediately in permanent housing avoiding the traumatic experience of a multi-bed living environment. These programs focus on quickly helping homeless find employment, housing, mental health services and connecting them with social service programs. There are success stories in our state as well as across the nation. The “Housing First” approach was pioneered by Beyond Shelter, a private nonprofit whose mission is to combat chronic poverty, welfare dependency, and homelessness among families with children. This program is embraced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) as “best practice” for governments and service-agencies to use in their fight to end chronic homelessness in America.

Rather than moving homeless through different “levels” of housing, known as continuum care, whereby each level moves them closer to “independent living” (for example: from the streets to a public shelter, and from a public shelter to a transitional housing program, and from there to their own apartment in the community).

Homeless peoples’ primary need is to obtain stable housing, and other issues that may affect the household can and should be addressed once housing is obtained. In contrast, many other programs operate from a model of “housing readiness” – that an individual or household must address other issues that may have led to the episode of homelessness prior to entering housing. Housing first places families as quickly as possible in permanent housing, and then provides intensive home-based case management and support services to prevent a recurrence of homelessness. This eliminates the path that gets people “ready” for housing. What’s to get ready, we know what they want and need. Let’s eliminate the time and resources prepping, and use the millions of dollars that would have gone into land acquisition and building a monument to supply their immediate needs.

The ongoing need for temporary seasonal shelters can be accommodated by our faith based congregations with the support of a rebuild on the Maxine Lewis property already designated for housing. Our underutilized faith based community is already in place to offer a high level of compassion and care. Such organizations as the Interfaith Coalition for the Homeless, People’s Kitchen, and Friends of Prado are fully prepared to assist in this outreach. Each has played an integral part in serving this community with exemplary tract records of support and fiscal management of donations.

Housing First ends homelessness immediately, it reduces the trauma involved in experiencing homelessness, it provides a roof over someone’s head with stability, and services in-housing rather than at a shelter or on the street more effectively. It’s particularly effective with homeless persons who have mental health or other disabilities and research shows its effectiveness contributes to reducing costs to the health care and criminal justice systems.

If we truly are our “brother’s keeper,” we should commit to a program like Housing First that responsibly provides our homeless residents with immediate housing and a legitimate path to self-sufficiency. This program removes the stigma of being homeless in search of housing. Conversely, constructing a “holding pen” for this population does nothing to elevate the dignity of our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Dan Carpenter can be reached at 805-704-8567 or

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Any sol.ution is meaningless unless rooted in compassion and sincerity