To deal with homelessness, California must make room for sobriety

By Dawn Davison, Scott Kernan & Michele Steeb, Special to CALmatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom is shifting control of the Juvenile Justice Division to the California Health and Human Services Agency, away from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with the goal to better identify and address early childhood trauma to prevent future incarceration. This same rationale should be extended to the exploding problem of homelessness.

California employs a one-size-fits-all policy for homelessness known as “housing first.” But as we have learned through our work at Saint John’s Program for Real Change, the largest residential program for formerly homeless women and children in Sacramento, homelessness is a complex issue. It requires a tailored approach.

Under housing first, men, women and their children are treated identically. They are provided housing as the solution to their homelessness. A house does address the symptoms of homelessness, but it does not address what led them there, including the childhood trauma that many struggling with homelessness have faced.     

While housing first has a role in addressing homelessness, it is not viable for people trying to escape the grip of addiction, because the requirement of sobriety is prohibited.

Nor is it a viable solution for their children, many of whom already have suffered significant trauma. Under the housing first model, programs that require sobriety or engagement in life-improvement services are ineligible for government funding.

This is a travesty for people seeking to escape the hold of drug addiction, and a threat to their children. Already traumatized children should not be placed in housing where drug use is permitted.

Housing first was developed under the George W. Bush Administration to address the chronically homeless population, largely single men battling severe mental illness, substance abuse disorder and/or physical disability.

The Obama administration blanketed this policy across all segments of the homeless population. California adopted this policy in 2016.

Utah, also under the rule of this one-size-fits-all approach, is held up as an example of housing first’s effectiveness. But a report by Utah’s Legislative Auditor General counters claims that it has been a resounding success, especially as it relates to families.

This should come as no surprise. It is misguided to presume there is a one-size-fits-all treatment for everyone who becomes homelessness, and it is equally misguided to assume that a policy designed for single men will work for single-mother-led families with children.

California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation learned a similar lesson. Once corrections instituted a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach, recidivism began dropping. In eight years, female recidivism rates fell by 21 percent.

Women struggling with homelessness confront many of the same issues as women who are incarcerated: trauma, addiction, dysfunctional relationships and lack of education.  

They need to be treated with the same gender-responsive, trauma-informed approach. The unique needs of their children also need to be considered.

Saint John’s houses and serves up to 270 women and children each day, approximately 700 women and children annually. We find that 77 percent of our clients struggle with substance abuse, 69 percent have experienced domestic violence, 58 percent suffer from mental health issues, 52 percent have a criminal history, and 50 percent lack a high school diploma.  

Saint John’s provides an 18-month residential program that includes substance abuse treatment, mental health therapy, budgeting, high school diploma attainment, and hands-on employment training.

Not surprisingly, their children have adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, with typical scores of four to six. (A score over four drastically increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, likelihood of alcoholism and attempted suicide). Children are provided mental health therapy, one-on-one coaching with an early childhood education specialist, and developmental screening to assess and help them heal past trauma.

On April 4, our latest class of 24 women will graduate from our program in a dinner celebration marking their transition from tax takers to taxpayers.

Homelessness is a seismic crisis. To solve it, and to prevent children from repeating the cycle, we need to follow Gov. Newsom’s lead and learn from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Employing gender-responsive and trauma-informed programming will encourage the highest rates of success for the growing numbers of women and children struggling with homelessness.


Dawn Davison, a Saint John’s board member, is a former warden of the California Institution for Women, [email protected]om. Scott Kernan is former secretary California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, [email protected] Michele Steeb is chief executive officer of Saint John’s Program for Real Change, [email protected] They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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