In summary

A Sacramento homeless shelter for mothers and their children is ineligible for millions of dollars in state homeless funds because it requires its residents to stay clean and sober. Assembly Bill 2623 could change that.

By Julie Hirota, Special to CalMatters

Julie Hirota is the chief executive officer of Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a residential program for mothers and their children in Sacramento.

Jackson is 4 years old. His little sister, Isabella, is 3. They live with their mother, Rachel, a recovering heroin addict at Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a shelter for formerly homeless women and children that I head. Rachel, like many of the mothers in our shelter, is a participant of a court-ordered reunification program. To keep custody of her children, she must refrain from using alcohol and drugs.

To help Rachel maintain sobriety and keep her children, and to protect Jackson, Isabella and dozens of other young children who live at our shelter, Saint John’s operates a strict clean-and-sober program. Our residents are barred from using drugs and alcohol. We conduct regular and frequent drug and alcohol tests for the safety of the residents — children and women. 

We have been sheltering women and their children for a long time, and we are painfully aware of how difficult it is to overcome addiction, to reach sobriety. One dirty test, a single violation, does not automatically trigger removal from the program, but multiple lapses can. Such lapses tell us that our program is not a good fit for a client, and we find her a more suitable place to live. Because of our policies, Saint John’s is ineligible for millions of dollars in state homeless funds.

California’s “Housing First” mandate, adopted in 2016, provides that “the use of alcohol or drugs in and of itself … is not a reason for eviction” from state-supported homeless shelters. I support that policy. Many of the people sleeping on our sidewalks, under freeways or on park benches are addicts. They need secure housing before they can begin to address their addiction. 

But taken to extremes, the Housing First mandate deprives young children like Jackson and Isabella of a safe and stable home. It makes it harder for Rachel to maintain sobriety. “If people are still using around me, it would threaten my sobriety and threaten my children,” she says. “I have to have stability, structure, routine, and none of that is possible without sobriety.” 

Assembly Bill 2623, authored by Assembly Member Carlos Villapudua, offers a narrow but sensible exception to the state’s overly rigid Housing First policy. It would allow a housing provider to prohibit the use of alcohol or drugs in facilities where children are present and the tenant is under a court order to refrain from the use of alcohol or drugs as a condition of reunification with their child.

Incredibly and unfortunately, the Assembly Housing Committee is refusing to allow the bill even to be heard — they want to silence this problem.

Saint John’s has a proven success record. We serve 150 families a year; 63% of the mothers we serve successfully reunify with their children; 75% of our clients move to stable housing; 96% leave our program with a job. 

AB 2623 is a small but crucial commonsense adjustment to the state’s Housing First policies that will help Saint John’s and other homeless shelters offer stability to families in crisis. For the sake of mothers like Rachel, for Jackson, Isabella and the other vulnerable children we serve, it deserves support — and certainly not to be swept under the rug. 

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