Ms. Rita Acosta’s advocacy on behalf of homeless persons is admirable. She and the constituencies she champions deserve substantial resources and fundamental assistance from the City of Salinas and from the rest of us. But both the city and our community have decided to address the issue superficially. We have decided that providing blankets and socks and, yes, even providing portable toilets is the best way to help homeless people. And, we feel good and spiritually fulfilled when we do so. But that approach is precisely why Ms. Acosta still feels vulnerable, even after she has relocated to subsidized housing.
The federal and state governments have, through various programs over the years, given the City of Salinas millions of dollars to spend on the homeless population. Yet the homeless situation has gotten worse and worse. The City has, for the most part, used the resources to provide only temporary relief, either in the form of services that address acute needs or programs that provide short-term shelter. Once the temporary relief ends, the beneficiaries remain homeless and, they are joined by many others who fall into the same situation.
Efforts to make people feel comfortable in their poverty, including homelessness, miss the mark. Instead, the goal should be to lift people out of poverty.
Such an effort requires a shift in strategy and a new way to utilize resources. To begin with, the City should make a substantial investment to spur the development of alternative housing for the homeless; housing which provides privacy and where people can reside while they receive long-term help (job training, drug abuse treatment, mental and physical health services, parenting assistance). Secondly, the services that the homeless receive should be durable and aimed at returning the beneficiaries, as much as possible, to a conventional lifestyle.
The strategy shift requires innovative action by many actors, not just the City of Salinas. For its part, the City needs to authentically prioritize alternative housing as I describe above. The City should use whatever housing funds it controls to focus on creating such housing. Non-profit organizations that receive moneys to build housing or provide housing services should receive resources only to develop models that address the needs of the homeless. Such models already exist in other parts of the country. Those models should be implemented in Salinas, either by local non-profits or by others, if necessary.
Additionally, county agencies that provide social services and employment counseling should develop models that prioritize and compliment the City’s effort to reduce homelessness and those models should receive priority funding. Those prototypes also already exist elsewhere and should be replicated in Salinas. Similarly, non-profits that deliver social services and employment counseling services should receive funds only if they develop approaches that synchronize with the homelessness strategies that the County and the City originate.
Good luck to Ms. Acosta as she continues advocating for the homeless and as she navigates her own journey now that she has found conventional housing for herself.