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Homelessness solution must address health as well as housing
A man sits next to his tent in San Francisco at the Division Street homeless encampment, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Photo Santiago Mejía
A man sits next to his tent in San Francisco at the Division Street homeless encampment, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Photo Santiago Mejía

California has the unfortunate distinction of having the largest homeless population of any state in our country. On any given night, 20 percent of our nation’s homeless are on California’s streets or in our shelters. Anyone who strolls down our city’s streets can witness San Francisco’s homelessness crisis. Despite years of effort and billions of dollars, we have nearly 7,000 homeless residents in our city, which should not be the case for one of our nation’s most progressive, innovative and wealthy cities.

Every year, we spend hundreds of millions of public dollars trying to address this issue, with the overwhelming majority of public funds going to healthcare. California spends an average of $2,879 per month per homeless resident, with two-thirds of that amount spent on healthcare alone.

The disproportionate amount for healthcare should not be a surprise. When a person lives on the streets, it is incredibly difficult to effectively treat health issues: medication is hard to store; sleep is hard to get; a healthy diet is impossible; and prolonged exposure to the elements is a certainty. Many homeless individuals cycle through emergency rooms, inpatient admissions and nursing home stays. Considerable public resources are spent, but those who suffer are our homeless residents.

We need to change the paradigm of how we address homelessness. We cannot talk about public health without addressing housing and homelessness issues. We cannot talk about housing and homelessness without addressing public health issues.

That is why I am championing Assembly Bill 2821, to create a program that pays for housing for homeless individuals who are on Medi-Cal, our state’s safety net health care program. To make sure the new initiative works and actually results in a reduction in homelessness, we will keep track of the healthcare cost savings as a result of housing and services. The program will make a smart, one-time investment to create a lasting solution to helping our most vulnerable Californians.

To truly make an impact, we must put housing first, as a city and as a state. Through a housing-first approach, we focus on housing as a homeless individual’s primary need, and then address other issues such as addictions and mental illness through services, in a combination known as supportive housing.  San Francisco has a decent record when it comes to supportive housing, but we must do better.

Studies have shown that housing homeless individuals with alcohol abuse issues, even those who still require treatment, dramatically improves health outcomes and reduces healthcare costs.  Individuals in supportive housing cost taxpayers $2,449 less per month than those still living on the streets. When we invest in housing on the front end, it’s clear that everyone benefits—our city, our taxpayers, and most importantly, the individuals themselves.

With the help of many supporters, including Speaker Emeritus Toni Atkins, the Corporation for Supportive Housing and Housing California, AB 2821 has passed the State Assembly and its first committee in the State Senate. To support our efforts to make AB 2821 law, please contact our office at (415) 557-3013 or email assemblymember.chiu@asm.ca.gov.

 Assemblymember David Chiu is the chair of the housing and community Development Committee of the California State Assembly. He represents the 17th Assembly District, which encompasses eastern San Francisco.

 

 

Story by: David Chiu