In summary

State and local governments must change housing law and zoning rules to move toward permanently housing unsheltered Californians.

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By Robert Strock, Special to CalMatters 

Robert Strock is co-founder of the Global Bridge Foundation, a psychotherapist, author and humanitarian,

There is $12 billion in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget allocated for homelessness and affordable housing — enough to permanently take care of the vast majority of the state’s needs. The state and federal efforts to fund transitional housing during the pandemic should be paired with permanent housing options that get people off the streets and into safe, dignified, long-term housing. 

To do that, California needs:

Cities and/or counties to appoint a central authority — a person or committee — because politicians and community leaders have not enforced the necessary zoning laws already in place. Instead, they’ve succumbed to pressure from NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) movements. Such an authority would have the power to make decisions based on the best interests of the broader community and the homeless population. Enforcement of zoning laws would allow for multiple tiny houses, travel trailers and mobile homes to be permanent housing communities. For the safety of the surrounding neighborhoods and those living within these communities, people with serious mental illness, addictions and violent backgrounds would get the health services they need or be offered a range of options to address their issues. Mental health professionals would evaluate them to determine whether they need to go to a closed facility and when they are ready to return to the community.

Updated state housing guidelines to expand housing definitions and provide more options for permanently housing homeless individuals. The primary example is prefabricated tiny houses — that is, homes roughly 150 to 200 square feet in size (or 500 square feet or larger for families) that include a kitchenette and bathroom. These readily available homes largely go unused in California, yet they’re inexpensive and easily assembled. They’re economical, dignified, and cost as little as $25,000 to $30,000 per unit, plus utility hook-up fees. That’s less than the $350,000-per-unit motel renovations to temporarily house unsheltered people or the $550,000 per unit for new buildings that are years from completion. 

Community First!, a thriving community composed of tiny houses, travel trailers and mobile homes in Austin, Texas, serves as an example. It has full community amenities, buildings for comprehensive care and community activity spaces that provide a sense of growth, joy and belonging.

Allow communities for the unsheltered on or near agricultural zoned lands, which would allow room for regenerative agriculture and opportunities for job training (for those among the homeless who are inclined) it affords. Such communities would offer employment, camaraderie with neighbors, the development of self-reliance and self-esteem and production of healthy food. Such a location also gives the communities the space to feel like a real neighborhood instead of a cramped, transitional space. 

Regenerative agriculture is a farming practice that doesn’t use pesticides but does use techniques that enrich the soil, use less water than traditional farming and remove carbon from the atmosphere. It is a natural partner to increasing the use of renewable energy. 

These necessary changes don’t add up to an all-encompassing solution to homelessness, but they do develop a viable, scalable framework. Without a change in zoning enforcement and housing definitions, the scale of the homeless challenge will remain hopeless.

Call your elected officials and request zoning law enforcement and liberalized housing options, and advocate for agricultural zoning.

The Global Bridge Foundation is collaborating with key homeless programs to appeal to local and state government officials to make these changes. Visit the Global Bridge Foundation for more information about regenerative agriculture and groups working to end homelessness. 

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