By Jeeni Criscenzo
Using school data, we can prove that close to 10,000 families in San Diego County are homeless and are not included in the Point-in-Time Count (PITC) that is conducted every year throughout the country to determine how to allocate HUD funds for homelessness programs.
[C]lose to 10,000 families in San Diego County are homeless and are not included in the Point-in-Time Count [used] … to determine how to allocate HUD funds for homelessness programs.
They are not being counted because single mothers, who for a myriad of reasons become homeless, will wisely prioritize their personal safety and the safety of their children over anything else. So while their male counterparts will often sleep “rough” on the streets or in the canyons, or compete for the few emergency beds in City and County shelters, 80% of the kids reported as homeless by the schools are spending their nights doubling up with “friends and relatives”.
Anyone who has graciously offered a couch to a friend or family member who is down on their luck, knows how, even in the best of circumstances, this is a strain on everyone’s patience. Tragically, in too many situations, couch surfing turns out to be unsafe for moms and their kids. And because it is always temporary, the experience is traumatic, particularly for the children and studies have shown it can be detrimental to their physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development.
By any measure, these families should be considered homeless and as a humane civilization we should be dedicating resources to helping them get out of this situation. But not only are they not counted by the PITC because they are not visible, they are not even considered homeless by HUD because of their choice of nighttime accommodations, which means there is no funding available to help them. So they go from imposing on family, to wearing out their welcome with friends, to whatever horrendous situation will shelter them for the night (use your imagination – it’s happening).
We need a “meantime” solution – emergency shelter that is safe – meaning it not only protects from the elements, but also protects women and children from assault, robbery and rape.
Changing HUD’s definition of “homeless” is a legislative process that should begin now, but will not change things soon enough for the 10,000 families needing real housing tonight in our county. But there is a way to provide emergency shelter for these families that is safe while still qualifying them as “homeless” so they can be served by agencies using HUD funds. They could be safely sheltered and still qualify for rental assistance for real housing, which we also need to be building but isn’t going to appear overnight.
We need a “meantime” solution – emergency shelter that is safe – meaning it not only protects from the elements, but also protects women and children from assault, robbery and rape. There has been a flurry of interest recently in tiny homes as a solution for homelessness and a counter argument that these are not really homes. Last week I wrote about the wooden shelter that Lisa Kohan built for a homeless man, which was impounded by SDPD. It seems to me that there is a convergence of ideas here that could actually solve the problem of counting our most vulnerable homeless population, women and children, while getting them services through HUD funding.
And that’s by classifying these small wooden shelters as emergency shelter specifically for women and children and elderly homeless persons. As emergency shelters, property that has been classified for emergency housing would be exempt from code regulations. The women and children sheltered in these structures would be classified as homeless.
[By] classifying these small wooden shelters as emergency shelter specifically for women and children and elderly homeless persons … [they] would be exempt from code regulations [and the] women and children sheltered in these structures would be classified as homeless.
By clustering these shelters near public transportation, we could do this in an organized way so that these families would get into the social services system and get the assistance they need to get into permanent housing. We could provide common facilities for toilets, showers, laundry and even dining. People in the housed community who want to help could provide bedding and basic furnishings, meals etc.
And most important, these families, women and kids who are dealing with trauma, would have a place of their own, privacy where they can lock the door at night and lock their few precious belongings up in the day, so they can get their kids to school and go to work.
We can do this. It wouldn’t cost a ton of money, especially if we could get donors for the construction materials and volunteers for the work. Families could participate in maintaining a site as part of their agreement to stay. As emergency shelter, there would need to be a time limit on how long a family could stay, but it should be tied to the availability of housing – so if there isn’t affordable housing to move into, we are not putting these folks back on the street.
I’m throwing this idea out there, for your feedback. Let’s put our heads together and solve this problem. No more ten year plans. No more unrealistic goals that end in brick walls. Continue in our efforts to get affordable housing built – thousands of units. But let’s do something right now, this month, to get those who are truly the most vulnerable, safely sheltered.
John Lawrence says
Excellent idea, Jeeni.
We would need to identify a lot where this would be possible. It could be a church vacant lot or a city owned lot. Would one of our elected representatives get behind this and make it happen whether it be city council or state representatives? or a non-profit?
Then we would need a Habitat-for-Humanity style building effort. Perhaps the San Diego Free Press could sponsor and coordinate this effort. We could get other homeless advocacy groups involved.
It would need to be sanctioned and approved by the city. Otherwise, they would shut it down.
Either a local philanthropist or a GoFundMe style crowdfunding effort would be needed to raise money for building materials.
The lady who provided the tiny house that was confiscated would be a valuable resource.
Why don’t you announce a meeting, Jeeni, of those interested to get the ball rolling.
I see zoning and permitting as the biggest problem after spending considerable time talking with some of the big players in developing at-risk housing both locally and nationally. Still, despite the legal hurdles, I’ve been intrigued with the tiny house concept since reading a great article (on Buzzfeed, of all places) about a year ago.
Even a small urban infill lot of perhaps 6,000 square feet could house a dozen or more tiny houses of perhaps 144 square feet (the footprint of an 8′ x 16′ trailer) while still providing off-street parking and a communal bath/kitchen area, though basic plumbing should also be possible to implement in the units.
Such a compound should be able to be built for less than $10,000 per unit, excluding site improvements and land cost – if placed on leased land this should at most double the per-unit cost before considering the permitting nightmare (anyone at city council willing to help clear some headway?).
I see a temporary solution that gets those at-risk off the street and in an environment stable enough to start considering priorities like job-seeking or job training for adults and a stable school life for children, but not necessarily a long-term housing solution. If temporary land leases could be obtained, the sites may have to move every few years but would be rent-or-subsidy-generating placeholders for developers not quite ready to begin a project.
To me turning every vacant lot that’s not currently under development and is near community resources like transit and schools into well-managed tiny home transitional living is the most commonsense solution I’ve ever heard – but the NIMBYist and zoning hurdles are indeed daunting.
John Lawrence says
Perhaps the zoning and permitting problems should be addressed first. We need an advocate on the city council or state assembly. I think there are a couple of progressives who might be able to help us with this idea.
Diane Levy says
What can be done at the state level? Could the governor use his authority for getting emergency housing?
Uma Kuchnia says
Regarding cost to build, what about asking builders and private citizens to recycle unused building materials? If you have ever been to the dump, it is heartbreaking to see perfectly good materials being wasted. A Habitat for Humanity effort could also be combined with a program to teach basic building skills to those in need, or to employ those with these skills who are currently out of work or homeless. Encouraging communal living skills is an effective way to support our children and families. It really does take a village to raise a child. Let’s give them a fair start. This could be a win/win for society at large.
Lori Saldaña says
Great report Jeeni- thanks for your insights and reporting, and for your help for women and children.
Last night, at the State of the City, I was struck by the Mayor’s refusal to discuss these homeless families- unless they were veterans. He described “Housing Our Heroes” – efforts to help homeless veterans by working with landlords this way:
“We have an opportunity – and an obligation – to make sure other homeless veterans who need help can get the same support Faith did. So tonight we build on San Diego’s new approach of providing housing with supportive services.
“I’m proud to announce the Housing Our Heroes initiative – a call to action to help one thousand homeless veterans get the housing they deserve!
“First, for veterans who are already on the streets, I am working with San Diego landlords to open their doors. And second, for veterans like Faith that suddenly find themselves homeless, we are ramping up our rapid-rehousing program.
“When veterans find themselves on the verge of homelessness or without housing, we will help them find a place to live – so the word “homeless” never enters their vocabulary.”
While admirable, it appears help is at hand for the “truly homeless” (i.e., veterans) vs. the “not-so truly homeless” and that Mayor Faulconer is setting up a divide that treats one group differently.
Let’s ask him to put ALL families and individuals, regardless of their prior military service, into safe housing- ASAP.