A summit on homelessness slated for Feb. 24 in Santa Barbara is aiming to get the business world engaged in addressing the issue.
The Homelessness Action Summit was organized by Social Venture Partners, a group of donors that works closely with nonprofits to improve their efficacy, and a group of government officials. The event will host several national speakers on the topic, but the organizers say the goal is to encourage data-driven methods of addressing homelessness that have measurable goals and a clear plan for achieving them.
Glenn Bacheller, a partner with Social Venture Partners who helped organize the event, comes from the business world himself. He’s been the CEO of five different companies, one of which he still owns on the East Coast, and has worked in high-level positions with retail firms such as Baskin-Robbins and Jamba Juice.
“We’re trying to help the folks who do this day-to-day have more of a business orientation in how they address the issue,” Bacheller said. “You need to know where you’re going, which direction you’re headed in, and how you’re going to measure along the way. We’re trying to work with the various constituencies to nail that down.”
Featured speakers include Philip Mangano, president and CEO of the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness and former director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, and Becky Kanis, co-founder of Social Change Agency and director of the national 100,000 Homes Campaign, who successfully led the effort to reduce street homelessness in New York’s Times Square. Officials from Pasadena and Fresno will also be on hand to talk about how their cities handled the issue.
Bacheller said one of the main themes will be the use of metrics — not just any metrics, but the key ones. Just as in business, there are a handful of important numbers that indicate progress, and Santa Barbara County must identify those, he said. “It’s a very complex issue, and it’s easy to get mired in a lot of data. You really need to identify the few things that are driving the issue in the community,” Bacheller said.
Because of the state’s mild climate, homelessness is a structural issue for California. The Golden State has more homeless people than the next four states — Texas, New York, Florida and Michigan — combined.
It is also a vexing issue for businesses in the Tri-Counties, with retail owners in downtown cores concerned about customers being driven away and companies of all kinds worried about the impact on the quality of life that lures employees to the region despite sky-high housing prices.
San Luis Obispo
“This continues to be a high-priority issue for our chamber, primarily because serving the homeless population is socially important, but also because the transient population impacts business not only in the downtown core, but throughout the city,” said Charlene Rosales, government affairs director with the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.
The SLO Chamber was a founding member of the Prado Day Center, which provides support to the homeless, and continues to work with community groups on creating a one-stop center for a variety of services. The chamber has also been in favor of so-called “safe parking” initiatives, in which the homeless living in vehicles are allowed to park them overnight for a limited amount of time while they work toward obtaining housing.
The chamber also recognizes the potential tension between community groups trying to provide services to the homeless and the residents who live in the area, and has been active in establishing a citywide “good neighbor” policy that sets up lines of communication to address the issue. “If there are any problematic behaviors that nearby community members see, they have a way to bring that up with the service provider and the service provider has a way to show they’re addressing the issue,” Rosales said.
The city of Ventura has been successful in reducing its homeless population by about 24 percent over the past seven years. The city’s downtown core and Ventura River areas have long had high homeless populations. An outlier in a world of fluffy euphemisms, Ventura’s policy employs straight talk to delineate between homeless people who are receptive to services and are working to secure housing, and those who have no demonstrated interest in doing so.
“We’re very, very, very clear and purposeful in the language we use. A homeless person is a person who doesn’t have a home. A vagrant is someone who is impacting the quality of life in the community. We don’t think people are calling us about a person’s status of not having a home,” said Peter Brown, the city’s community services manager.
Brown, who has worked in both Santa Barbara and Ventura, said homelessness presents an especially tough challenge in the Tri-Counties because of its extremely high costs of housing and extremely limited supply. Many solutions that work in areas with cheaper housing or more housing stock won’t work here. Transitioning even a few hundred people into housing would mean millions of dollars a year in ongoing costs.
And then there is the all-important question: Who wants the recently homeless living next door?
About 15 years ago, the city of Ventura was seeking a permit for a center that would provide services to the homeless and had proposed seven locations.
“Those seven locations hit the front page of the Ventura County Star, and I got 200 letters. One-hundred ninety-nine of those said, ‘We need this kind of service, but you should not put it in this neighborhood.’ Therein lies the problem,” Brown said.
The city of Ventura has created a “chronic offender” program that seeks to separate vagrants from the homeless and is working with the Ventura County Community Foundation to potentially assemble an endowment that would provide funding to help those who want services find housing.
But Brown said tough questions — often unasked because no one wants to appear callous — remain unanswered.
“What is a community’s responsibility to provide jobs and housing to individuals who have never been productive in that community? There are a lot of people here in Ventura who have never been productive in Ventura,” Brown said. “We have very limited resources, and those resources should only be provided to people who want to make a difference in their lives.”
Bacheller, the organizer of the summit, said that its focus will not necessarily be to encourage more spending on homeless issues, but to make the existing spending more effective. As in business, the cost of not having a well-thought-out plan is too high to ignore, he said.
“One of the things that’s going to be demonstrated is that the lower cost of housing and providing services to people more actively, as opposed to leaving them in the streets,” Bacheller said, noting that studies have shown that homeless services can cost between $13,000 and $25,000 a year if provided proactively, while police visits and jail stays can cost between $35,000 and $150,000. “The difference is a pretty damn compelling case, not necessarily to spend more, but to spend more efficiently and effectively.”