By Oscar Villegas, Yolo County Supervisor.

California’s counties are incredibly diverse, but no matter their size, location, population or demographics, all 58 are grappling with the issue of homelessness. I recently testified at a State Capitol hearing on this complex issue. Homelessness has many causes, but two things are clear: counties are uniquely positioned to address homelessness, and we must collaborate with our cities and others to find housing solutions for all Californians.

Counties administer critical state poverty-reduction programs, including CalWORKs, CalFresh and Medi-Cal. Counties operate mental health plans and provide substance use disorder services. County and city law enforcement are often the first responders to homelessness, too. And because counties lead local zoning and general planning, they also have an important role in creating affordable and temporary housing. Many California counties are fulfilling these roles with local collaboration as well as innovative and effective programming.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has launched a $100 million homeless initiative to leverage all resources and develop solutions to combat this issue countywide. The initiative is focused on six key areas:

  • Creating a coordinated system,
  • Preventing homelessness,
  • Providing subsidized housing,
  • Increasing Income,
  • Providing case management and services, and
  • Increasing affordable housing

View Los Angeles County’s video on homelessness here.

In Placer County, the number of chronic homeless individuals increased three-fold since 2007. In response, the Board of Supervisors opened the county’s first formal homeless shelter last year, converting former military barracks into housing for up to 40 people each night.

In my county, Yolo, our city/county collaboration on the Bridge to Housing program relocated an entire homeless encampment from the West Sacramento riverbank. Sixty-five chronically homeless people were given housing for four months and received intensive on-site case management services to help them navigate the system. The outcomes are impressive:

53 of the 65 original participants (82%) remained in the program for the entire 4 months.

Of those who completed the program:

  • 49 people (92%) were issued a Housing Choice Voucher,
  • 38 people (72%) successfully secured permanent housing,
  • Participants with health insurance increased from 25 people (47%) to 50 people (94%)

Despite efforts like these in counties up and down the state, homelessness remains a complex and difficult problem to manage. Housing vacancy rates have dropped and rents have increased, making it more difficult to offer permanent and affordable housing.

In Yolo County, it is not uncommon for our service providers to work intensively with a homeless individual for many months and still be unable to find them a place to live simply because housing that meets their needs is not available.

County boards often run into “NIMBY” opposition as they try to create more low income or transitional housing.  However, we have learned in Yolo that such challenges can be overcome through partnerships, careful planning and innovative thinking. Collaboration with local cities and nonprofit organizations is critical. Each community is unique, so solutions that work in Los Angeles County may not work in Yolo. However, outreach, case management and wraparound services are, in my experience, necessary components to any housing solution.

I would also like to note that it is important to work from a shared context of compassion, dignity and respect.  The homeless people we see on the streets are veterans, fathers/mothers, sons/daughters, and unemployed workers.  Some of them suffer from mental illness or addiction.  If we approach solutions through a compassionate lens, then perhaps we and other policy makers can truly tackle this difficult issue for individuals, while also creating healthy and thriving neighborhoods, communities and businesses.

As part of CSAC’s efforts on homelessness issues, the CSAC Institute is offering a special course in its “Emerging Issues” series on Homelessness in Our Communities on Thursday, April 14. Humboldt County Supervisor Virginia Bass and I will facilitate the course in Sacramento. I hope you can attend as we continue the dialogue on this important issue.

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Originally posted at the California State Association of Counties.