Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis in our community, and a collective moral failing.
For years, I’ve watched the city wrestle with homelessness. I’ve been attending meetings of the subcommittee for years — I remember when it was the Homelessness Committee, and I was there when it became the Homelessness and Affordable Housing Subcommittee, and I was there when it became the Safe and Clean, Homelessness, Affordable Housing Subcommittee. It’s an apt metaphor for the all the times we’ve scrapped our approach to homelessness and tried something else.
There as many reasons for homelessness as there are unhoused people. The primary driver might be bankruptcy, or addiction, or domestic violence, or mental health, or mental disability, or physical disability, or behavioral disability, or trauma. For many, it’s a complex web of reasons. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But you can’t solve homelessness without housing.
Opening The ARCH
I supported the creation of a year-round, low-barrier shelter at the Homelessness Subcommittee, at the Planning Commission, at City Council, and at the Measure O Committee. And so I was there to celebrate at the ribbon cutting. After years of false starts and trying new approaches, I was beginning to think it wouldn’t happen. It was a great day for Ventura; the only bittersweet note was that Neal Andrews didn’t live to see his tireless work come to fruition.
The ARCH is operated by Mercy House. It isn’t like the Winter Warming Shelter. It is a 55 bed, year-round shelter, with wrap-around services — in other words, unlike traditional shelters, it provides services on-site for its residents. The residents aren’t kicked out every morning at 6am. It’s a low-barrier shelter: a resident can’t drink or use drugs on the premises, but if they are drunk or high, and they can behave themselves, they won’t be turned away. There is no limit to how long a client cn stay, but they ust be making progress on their individualized housing plan. Pets are even allowed. Very few shelters are as welcoming.
We would not have a low-barrier year-round shelter without the assistance of the county. The county pays for half of the shelter’s $1.2 million yearly operating costs. This partnership is key: homelessness is not unique to Ventura, or the county, or even California.
Regional Problems Require Regional Solutions
On a pragmatic level, government agencies agree that the homelessness crisis must be fixed, but each expects the other to bear most of the costs. We know that it’s cheaper to house a person and provide services than to arrest them and jail them, or admit them to the Emergency Room time after time for untreated, chronic illnesses. Some of those bills go to the city, some to the county, some to the state. A city can build a shelter, but much of the cost-savings will accrue to the county and the state. Cities are reluctant to fund services without the other agencies chipping in.
Moreover, cities are hesitant to get too far out ahead of their neighboring cities. The fear is that if Springfield offers a low barrier shelter with wrap-around services, and Shelbyville doesn’t, that unhoused people will move from Shelbyville to Springfield, leaving Springfield with the bill, and decreasing the pressure on Shelbyville’s leaders to fund their own shelter.
So cities can’t act in a vacuum. The city of Ventura must strengthen its ties with the County, and help the county implement a county-wide approach. Because of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Martin v Boise, cities have little choice but to find ways to provide shelter beds, which will mean cooperating with each other and the county.
Martin v Boise (2018)
The Martin v Boise decision is good case law. For decades, cities have tried to push their unhoused populations to other jurisdictions, either by literally transporting them there via bus or patrol car, or by arresting people until they gave up and moved on. Some residents might see this as an improvement to their own community, but it doesn’t solve the larger problem. In fact, it just makes it worse. Homeless people learn to avoid the police, or turn antagonistic. And it drains the resources of police departments and county jails.
But now, because of Martin v Boise, if Springfield does build a shelter, and Shelbyville does not, at least the Shelbyville Police Department can not harass their unhoused population by arresting them for being homeless. They can’t use arrests to push their homeless population towards Springfield. Shelbyville is going to need to build their own shelter.
Cooperation With the County
The city must take every opportunity to collaborate with the county to address homelessness. The ARCH is only one way to partner. This is why I supported the shared outreach worker position created last fall: it’s a county employee, the city pays half the cost, and she works in the city of Ventura. As we implement our new approach, I expect we’ll soon find out not only how effective the new social worker has been, but how cost-effective. I expect we’ll realize one outreach worker isn’t nearly enough, that more outreach workers will, in the end, save the city more than they cost.
Looking forward, the County is investigating the possibility of purchasing distressed motels for conversion into housing, if the state budget funds such a program. These programs will require close cooperation, and our city and county staff have done amazing work to build interagency connections. As Sacramento debates legislation such as AB3300 (The California Access to Housing and Services Act), the city and the county must lay all the groundwork to successfully apply for state funds before AB3300 is signed into law.
That’s not enough. Ventura must actively demonstrate to other cities what cooperation can achieve. Not only do we need to cooperate with the county, we need all the other local governments to cooperate with the county. Being in the forefront in the county, there is an understandable concern that Ventura is shouldering the burden alone. The ARCH, for example, is supposed to give preference to Ventura residents, because we do not have a regional approach or cooperation among all the cities. Ventura should reach out to other local governments to share our successes, whether by hosting staff meetings that draw attendees from across the county, or having Councilmembers speak at other city council meetings when homelessness is on their agenda. Their successes will help us realize more of our own.
Supporting the ARCH
The ARCH opened in January and was open only a couple months when the pandemic hit. The county immediately pivoted to providing motel rooms for the high-risk populations through Project Roomkey, and testing and contact tracing for any person who fell ill. A 55-bed shelter is not a place where people can self-isolate.
We still do not know how the ARCH will resume as the pandemic continues, or when it will return to business-as-usual when the pandemic is done. Council will need to give the shelter, and Mercy House, time to bring everything back on line, and continue working through the process of setting up all the processes to ensure the 55-bed shelter runs smoothly and at capacity.
All Roads Connect to Housing
ARCH stand for All Roads Connect to Housing. Building 55 beds is a notable accomplishment, but Ventura’s unhoused population is at least 550. We can’t build nine more shelters. But, once the pandemic is over and the ARCH is operating, we can help the clients move to affordable supportive housing. That will mean increasing our stock of affordable housing.
First, by streamlining the development review process, the Council has granted broad new powers to the Director of Community Development. The Director will be able to assign which path a project must follow as it wends it way through the process. Council must formally direct the Community Development Director to fast-track projects that exceed the bare minimum requirements for affordable housing.
Second, we must adopt a Housing Element Land Inventory that doesn’t stink. (See my page on the Housing Crisis for more information.) Council should examine the 2016 HELI, and the degree to which it succeeded, and the ways it which it failed. In particular, Council should not adopt a HELI that identifies more than the necessary potential units; otherwise a project can go forward without meeting the Regional Housing Needs Assessment for that vacant or underutilized parcel.
Third, we must apply Regional Housing Needs Assessment numbers evenly across all areas of the city. While there’s a standard algorithm for assigning a total number of affordable housing units to a vacant or under-utilized parcel, “affordable” is broken down into three categories, based on income. In Ventura County, for a two-person household, the income limits for the categories are:
- Very Low/Low: $0 – $72,320
- Moderate: $72,320 – $108,480
- Above Moderate : $108,480+
City staff decides how many of each category are assigned to a vacant or underutilized parcel, and in some neighborhoods, developers are expected to build affordable units for people in the very low/low income group. In other neighborhoods, developers can build affordable units for people in the Above Moderate category. In District 3, for example, the expectations for Very Low/Low units are substantially higher than for the rest of the city:
(Note: this type of analysis has not been produced or shared by city staff. This is my own research. RHNA category balance hasn’t been discussed by Council in the last five years.)
This imbalance means a developer can choose a location based on the RHNA categories. They can avoid building on a site that would require most or all of the units be Very Low/Low. This is why, in Ventura County, nearly 40% of the Affordable Housing Units built in the last cycle were for people in the Above-Moderate category. It’s also why some developers prefer sites other than in District 3. Saddling a site with all Very Low/Low numbers discourages those units from ever being built.
Safe and Clean
The ARCH isn’t the only smart move Council has made in its approach to homelessness. Rather than having a Community Services Manager in the Community Development Department, tasked with issues around homelessness, the city now has an amazing Safe and Clean program manager.
By having that manager report directly to the City Manager, the Safe and Clean program is better able to work across all of the city’s departments, from Public Works to the Parks to Police and Fire. In addition to overseeing the ARCH, Safe and Clean remediates blight and removes debris, works with the Police Department’s Patrol Task Force, partners with faith-based organizations, and collaborates with other agencies in the Community Intervention Court. While Council must eliminate positions to balance next year’s budget, I oppose any cuts to the Safe and Clean program or Ambassador program.