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Regional collaboration is key to ending homelessness

by John Bauters

Emeryville Mayor John Bauters. Photo: Courtesy John Bauters
Emeryville Mayor John Bauters. Photo: Courtesy John Bauters  

Despite significant efforts to combat homelessness, the needs of the homeless population are outpacing the local response. Many residents who have previously expressed sympathy and compassion for our homeless population have found their patience tested more recently, giving way to feelings of frustration and anger. Encampments sprouting up in local neighborhoods, piles of refuse, the presence of human waste and people exhibiting the signs of living with an untreated mental illness are conditions that have made many ask: what is being done to solve this problem?

To their credit, local leaders are trying very hard to be responsive. Clearing trash, creating shelter opportunities, outreach teams, and affordable housing bonds are all examples of the efforts local leaders have undertaken in the past couple of years in a sincere effort to make a dent in the growing homelessness problem. One common problem plagues all of these efforts: an absence of coordinated, meaningful regional leadership.

Responding to immediate needs with quick interventions, while understandable, has come at the expense of planning and executing a coordinated regional strategy. While a Coordinated Entry System is being implemented in Alameda County, local governments region-wide are on different pages about the most appropriate next steps.

We need greater regional leadership and coordination of the systems that deliver homeless services. Local governments have a vested interest in giving up some local control in pursuit of this goal: we expend a large amount of resources managing homelessness instead of solving it. The ongoing costs our local law enforcement, public works, and public health systems alone incur keep us from making greater strides in other priorities, including crime reduction, infrastructure enhancement, and community health outcomes.

Coordinating our local response to the homelessness crisis allows us to better leverage existing resources, yielding savings to local governments. It also helps us deliver better social outcomes that include keeping people housed, engaged in ongoing care or treatment, and improving community wellness. For example, suppose two neighboring cities both face the problem of growing encampments. Rather than each city creating a shelter with outreach services, the cities pool resources into a single, shared outreach program. The savings yielded from their collaboration can be invested into housing navigation services and permanent housing solutions.

Regional leadership affords us the opportunity to examine important questions that will better inform not only our long-term solutions, but improve the quality of the urgent, immediate interventions local leaders are making to be responsive to constituents. How much of our regional resources need to be spent on shelter services versus permanent housing? How can co-locating critical services like mental health care, substance use treatment options, and public assistance programs at shelter sites accelerate an individual's movement into long-term stable housing? What kinds of housing infrastructure are we lacking the most? Are we prioritizing difficult-to-serve individuals who are the greatest consumers of emergency and other core city services? How well do we leverage our existing social services systems to meet the needs of this population?

Answering these questions still leaves challenges. Where to locate a shelter, siting housing for the homeless, sustaining services through periods of economic uncertainty, and sharing costs across systems that have traditionally operated in silos are all real challenges we must tackle regionally if we are going to successfully address homelessness with solutions that last.

Bay Area residents have been asking for their elected leaders to address this problem. They have shown repeatedly that they are willing to make investments in those solutions, passing housing bonds and approving local outreach programs, among other things. Before the public's compassion turns to anger, Bay Area leaders must partner regionally to make good on our opportunity to deliver outcomes that last. We can end homelessness, but we must do it together.

John Bauters is the mayor of Emeryville, California. Bauters lived through housing insecurity as an LGBTQ youth, spent more than a decade as an outreach worker and attorney for people experiencing homelessness in Chicago, and has served as a legislative advocate in Sacramento on behalf of homeless Californians.

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