California – Build it on the hills

At the last official count, there were 151,278 homeless individuals in California.  This is roughly twice the population of Milpitas (a small city in California).  Homelessness in California is caused by several factors including the climate, population size, severe shortage of affordable housing, drug addiction, mental health, lack of law enforcement, special interest groups, and the economy. 

A lot of people think that homeless encampment is not legal, but it is legal.  In 2018, the Ninth Circuit court ruled in “Martin v. Boise” that a homeless person cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.

In San Francisco, it is estimated that 42% of homeless people struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, and 39% have psychiatric or emotional conditions.  This means that a lot of homeless people are normal people, without mental illness or drug addiction.  Some people become addicted to drugs to forget the painful reality, or develop mental illness after living on the street.

Before proposing a solution, let us quote some questions and answers from an SF Chronicle page:

Why do local leaders refuse to acknowledge that this is a drug crisis first and a homeless issue second? It’s incredibly frustrating to see open-air drug use and dealing without consequences.

The two issues are related, but have separate elements. As acute and frustrating as the drug abuse is, the overarching bottom line is that addicts can’t get clean while they’re on the streets. And local officials generally do not think that arresting people for drug use is the best use of resources. Additionally, most people in unstable situations have a significantly low rate of rehab success.

Have we inadvertently created a drug ecosystem, in which addicted homeless people remain clustered in San Francisco to remain close to dealers and to sources of income such as panhandling of tourists and petty theft?

Some would say yes. Homeless addicts do tend to group in areas where addicts to similar substances hang out and sleep — parts of the Mission District for heroin, and parts of the Tenderloin for crack or methamphetamine, for example. For many years, city law enforcement and courts have preferred to steer drug offenders toward rehabilitation rather than prison, with the understanding that hard time behind bars is often ineffective. The fact is, however, that rehabbing from drugs or alcohol usually takes several tries. For a homeless person, each failure puts that person right back on the streets.

Why do West Coast cities like San Francisco have so many fewer shelter beds per capita than the East Coast cities like New York? Has there ever been discussion of a California right-to-shelter law similar to New York’s?

New York City is indeed the big example. In the 1980s, it passed a series of laws mandating a right to shelter for every homeless person, and then forcing most homeless people to either take the shelter bed offered to them or face penalties. It cleared up the visual problem in Manhattan to a large extent, but much of the city’s 61,000-person homeless population now lives in teeming shelters away from downtown, with inadequate aid programs to get them into permanent housing. West Coast cities decided in the early 2000s to focus on creating housing opportunities instead of shelter, with the idea that it’s a more permanent solution. The right-to-shelter idea does surface in California from time to time — and it is currently being considered by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new homelessness council — but hasn’t found substantial support.

So a key argument is that using prison is costly, not effective, and not morally right.  Similarly, it is not morally right, and not legal to force people with mental illness into treatment.  To deal with this mental health issue, we need to get people into stable affordable housing with supportive services to help them regain their lives.

If you put a homeless person into a home, he is no longer homeless.  Experts and politicians agree that affordable housing is the key to ending homelessness.  However building affordable housing is expensive particularly if it is built in an already populated or expensive area.  Building affordable housing also receives a lot of pushback from citizens, and therefore is slow.

Elected officials should not think that they must build housing within their borders.  Instead, they should work with surrounding cities, and counties to increase the supply of affordable housing in the region.

Because building housing is expensive, the city of San Jose considered building tiny home villages, but that received a lot of pushback from citizens.  But here is the thing: California has a lot of open hills.  If the cities, counties, and state can re-purchase those hills, and build large managed sanctioned tiny home villages or encampments there where it is a bit further from the populated area, it may not receive strong pushback, considering the severity of the homeless problem. This idea may work as a best middle ground alternative.

Assuming that each tiny home costs $25,000, the total cost for 150,000 tiny homes would be 3.8 billion dollars.  I have read somewhere that the cost for a tiny home can be around $10,000 as well, so the cost for 150,000 tiny homes would be 1.5 billion dollars.  If cost is the concern, instead of equipping these sanctioned villages with 100% of tiny homes, perhaps, for the short term, some people can stay in tents, but the city, county, and state can replace these tents with more tiny homes over time.

The state should work with cities to equip these sanctioned villages with food, water, portable showers, SAFE INJECTION FACILITY, REHAB FACILITY, counseling and supportive services.  Each sanctioned village should be run / managed by a nonprofit.  The nonprofit can charge the city based on the number of people that were homeless in the city before moving into the village. With this arrangement, for example, if the city of Fremont or Milpitas has open hill space for a sanctioned homeless village, this village can house people from Oakland, and the nonprofit can charge the city of Oakland.

Even though these sanctioned homeless villages are on the hills, it may be a bit inconvenient, but transportation should not be an issue (it can be managed by the nonprofit). The idea is to have support services and necessities available onsite so that occupants do not need to panhandle, and can focus getting their lives back on track.

Funding for these sanctioned villages should include onsite security to protect homeless people from each other, and from other criminals who prey on homeless people.

We have no idea how much it would cost to purchase these hills, or if the state and cities already own some of these hills.  We also have no idea on the cost for supportive services, but building these large sanctioned homeless villages with PROPER COMPASSIONATE CARE on the hills seems to be a cheaper and more effective alternative to building traditional housing in crowded areas.

People without mental illness, or drug addiction should be housed in one village.  People with mental illness or drug addiction should be housed in a separate village.  Runaway children should be housed in a separate village. People that are sex offenders should be housed in a separate village. People with criminal history should be housed in a separate village.  The idea is to provide each village with the right type of support services.

By providing a safe injection facility, a rehab facility, and counseling service, the goal is to get people off addiction to regain their life.  People living in these villages have the right to privacy, visitation, and other rights that normal people have.  These villages should be run by nonprofits, and should be frequently audited and inspected by governments to meet public health and other applicable standards, and the nonprofits are paid with the pay for performance model.

If you wonder how these remote large managed sanctioned villages differ from the existing sanctioned villages, well, these remote large sanctioned villages should be better equipped as mentioned above with tiny homes (a bed in a tiny home is better than sleeping in a tent or out in the cold), shower, laundry facility, food, clothes, safe injection facility, rehab facility, and counseling so that people can regain their life without having to panhandle.

Once these large managed sanctioned villages are created, we can then go back to enforcing quality of life laws.  The idea of building these large managed sanctioned villages on the hills is not intended to be the ultimate solution.  It may be the best middle ground solution.  With these large managed sanctioned villages, the goal is to address many issues associated with homelessness, and to end homelessness for as many people and as quickly as possible, while we build more housing, and fix other systemic issues. 

We support and advocate for building more housing. We believe that housing should be affordable for all. In the words of George Orwell: “Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.”

In closing, we would like to remind you of a popular phrase “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Building affordable housing in crowded places is expensive, slow, and not effective. We must try something different, and California has a lot of open space on the hills, and we can implement the right solution there.

While we may not know the total cost of building these sanctioned homeless villages on the hills, it is likely to be a lot cheaper compared to building traditional supportive housing in populated areas, and can potentially end homelessness for all people that are currently homeless in much faster timeframe. Rather than ending homelessness in 5 or 10 years, this can potentially end homelessness in a year or less. We look forward for cities to take a shot at this idea.

If California popularize this approach, and show that this problem can be solved effectively everywhere, perhaps, other states won’t need to send their homeless people to California. Perhaps, we can require some form of residency verification (prior employment) before admitting to these large managed sanctioned site but we are not sure on the legality of this or whether it is necessary yet.

If you care about ending homelessness, please think about this idea, discuss the feasibility of this idea with your local leaders and elected officials. Ask them for the next step, and follow up with them. Talk to your neighbors. Form your own community association. Have meetings. If your elected officials don’t do their jobs, vote for someone else. Do not let them off the hook so easily.

Actually, something like this had been done in Texas, and we have got to get these built in California. Homelessness is a multi-facet issue, involving drug, mental health, social issues, and the economy. The question is whether we have enough heart and compassion to solve it the right way. See


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