Q&A by Jennifer Junghans
Lisa Bates has been the CEO of Sacramento Steps Forward since 2019. The nonprofit organization formed in 2011 to act as a regional planning body “responsible for leading efforts around coordinating a response to ending homelessness,” Bates says.
SSF is the lead organization for the Sacramento Homeless Continuum of Care, a 30-member body that has a cross-sector of organizations that reside on its board. SSF oversees the Point-in-Time count for Sacramento County, and provides data to help inform the community around actions to tackle homelessness. We recently spoke to Bates to get her perspective on solutions for addressing such a complex issue.
Where does the data come from that SSF uses to make decisions?
There’s two primary places where we are looking at data. One is our homeless management information system that every provider that is providing some sort of service to people [who are] about to or experiencing homelessness [contributes to]. We are working to have them provide that data in the system so we have really good real-time data to be able to know fluctuations in people experiencing homelessness. What are the outcomes? Are they in a shelter? Are they unsheltered? Are they seeking housing? Also being able to get at racial equity issues in terms of are some populations faring better than others? Do we have disproportionate representation? We are working very hard with our community to increase the quality and coverage of that data.
The second place where a lot of people point to is an every other year census count called the Point-in-Time. HUD and the state in particular use those as guideposts for whether or not you are trending in the right direction, relative to addressing homelessness.
What kind of policies are set based on that data?
A couple of things. For instance, the last point-in-time count revealed a significant increase in the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness who were coming in and accepting sheltering. That is a direct result of us offering non-congregate housing through Project Roomkey (motel rooms provided to those experiencing homelessness). … They can lock it, they can have their belongings in there. It feels much more like you have your own command of your space. So it reinforced for us the approach we need to take, particularly if we want to see highly vulnerable people who have been on the streets for a long time come in, you need to offer them an environment that is conducive to them feeling safe to come in.
To that end, the county is now only building non-congregate shelters … and moving away from a congregate model.
Another way [we use data] is that in Sacramento, we’re seeing for every person we’re able to house, we have another three that fall into homelessness. It means we need to do more on the front end. We need more preventative measures as well as sheltering and rehousing if we want to help manage the overall issue of homelessness.
We’ve had a significant increase in the Sacramento region in people experiencing homelessness in the last couple years. What do you attribute that to?
I think one big factor that the researchers also point to is the incredibly tight housing market and the low vacancy rates. When you have very low vacancy rates, you’re going to see more prevalence of people experiencing homelessness. … We became a much more attractive option, too, relative to the Bay Area, as people can find cheaper solutions and can work remotely. But I mean, you’re looking at $1,900 for a one-bedroom apartment. It’s really a significant increase in the cost. Plus the availability of housing for people declined.
With the increase in homeless camps, it appears they are often occupied by people who might be experiencing more mental health challenges and addictions rather than those who are affected by a lack of affordable housing.
Everybody’s path (to homelessness) is different. You may start out just having lost a job … or in your car or with friends and family. You can quickly spiral into: ‘I don’t have any place.’ And there’s always the question of: Is mental illness or addiction a result of your being homeless? Or did it cause your homelessness? … Both things are true, but you certainly are going to be much worse off if you’re in a tent without any real facilities. It is challenging for anyone to survive in those environments for very long.
In addition to the low vacancy rates and mental health challenges, are there other factors that you see that may be driving the homelessness crisis?
There’s a disproportionate amount of Black people represented in our homeless count. I think that has a lot to do with the structural systemic racism and policies in our society. … We also see a higher prevalence of native American Indians as well.
[Also] the general safety net of services. People are being failed by several systems usually before they end up homeless. We see a prevalence of people in the child welfare system and foster care. … We also see some from the justice system. There are upstream safety net systems that have not helped or have not been able to support people that then results in them falling further into homelessness. And mental health is certainly a factor for a certain portion of the population, as well as addiction. But there are many people in society who can be stably housed and still have mental health and substance abuse challenges.
What do you see as the most promising solutions to homelessness?
The ability to have adequate housing for people certainly works. You will see from the national data that they’ve been able to reduce veterans’ homelessness by about 50% over the last 10 years. That’s a combination of a housing-first approach with a voucher combined with really rich services. … You have a focus on getting people housed and getting them adequate services. … Now in the Biden Administration’s recent proposal they’re trying to take that same philosophy and apply that to families and youth. Let’s see if we can tackle those next two populations as well with more robust guaranteed housing assistance with services.
The best [option] is to give people housing with the appropriate level of services that they need. … The challenge right now is we don’t have enough housing to be able to always do that. So sometimes an interim step is into a shelter until we can adequately rehouse. We need to do a better job of increasing housing placements. … There’s a set of strategies around that. You can build more housing and there’s thousands of units of affordable housing in the pipeline. And we also have quite a bit of permanent supportive housing, which is the housing that has really intensive services associated with it. And that’s typically reserved for people who are chronically homeless.
But not every person needs that level of service. So, part of the approach that we have … is to coordinate access to the appropriate services, really assessing what does a person or a family need and what level of assistance. And then being able as a system to have that variety of options — [like an] ability to work with landlords to accept vouchers or short-term rental assistance from programs. Continuing to look at the purchase and renovation of hotel rooms. Continuing to have a pipeline of new affordable housing and permanent supportive housing units. And then on the prevention side, sometimes people just need a little bit of money to sustain their housing … So, also recognizing that some of these more short term, smaller amounts of financial assistance can be helpful to either keep people stably housed or get them quickly into housing.
When we talk about additional services beyond housing, what does this mean?
General case management. Being able to help people with a life plan. What is it that you need in order to be stably housed, to secure additional income? Helping people be able to not only maintain their tenancy but get the health services they need. What’s your ability to claim the benefits if you’re able and eligible for benefits? Job training if that’s a possibility. So it’s that work to help that individual build all of the necessary things they need to remain stably housed and hopefully secure or increase their income.
How do we align all of the key agencies in order to make this happen?
That’s a big function of what we do as the lead agency for the continuum of care. The other big thing for us, if we’re gonna see movement, is not only investing in the right interventions and focusing on the right interventions based on the data we collect, but also having a plan that we’re all aligned to and that we’re coordinating at a system level. … The opportunity now is with the Sacramento Local Homeless Action Plan … with the partnership agreement that the city and the county adopted. We have more of a focus and we have more of an integration about how we’re going to deliver on our efforts.
It starts with the coordination of access to services. So we’re building a coordinated access system. It means using our data to say, How much should we be putting toward prevention versus rehousing versus sheltering? And what we demonstrate in our gaps analysis is that if you want to see a transformed system, yes, we need to address the urgent response with outreach and sheltering, but we also need to build the infrastructure for prevention and for the end result, which is housing. So we need to look at them all in concert and make sure that we’re pulling the right levers at the right time and the right resources to see that our [homeless] population is actually decreasing.
The game changer for me has been this ability to come together around one plan — a set of actions grounded in data — and that we’re gonna be monitoring and measuring and redirecting based on what we see in terms of the effectiveness at a system level, not at a project-by-project level. You may say, “My program’s awesome,” but what’s that doing in the overall system? It may be a good model to then go to scale with but right now we have a lot of everybody saying, “My individual program is great,” but it isn’t necessarily resulting in a change in the overall system.
What have the city and county actually agreed to this time that they haven’t agreed to previously?
They have a very detailed memorandum of understanding or partnership agreement that spells out first their roles and responsibilities. Who’s responsible for delivering services, how are shelters being delivered jointly. So the city is offering the sites and the county is providing the services, for example. It sets targets for how many shelter beds will be available. They have built integrated outreach teams and how many encampments they intend to go to. How much behavioral health services will be available, both in outreach and in shelters. It identifies the need for a further development of an affordable housing plan that they need to jointly put all of their resources into a coordinated access system that we are administering.
What enabled them to come together now?
I think the public’s frustration that nothing is being done. I think, honestly, a shift in leadership at the county. You have more willing leaders at the county that are willing to work with the city and the mayor. There’s both the political pressure and the community pressure. There was a requirement through Measure O … so there was business pressure that there’d be some coordination between the city and the county.
What might some of the limitations be around these solutions we’re discussing?
Housing. Access to it and building it. It’s a costly effort and it’s a private market, so you’re somewhat driven by the whims of the private sector. The challenge also for California … is to make sure that communities aren’t putting up a lot of barriers to development of housing. … The state’s going to have some say in terms of housing elements, in terms of your regional housing needs assessments and how much progress you’re making on available land to be built and reinforcing everything that a community can do to streamline the provision of housing. So trying to take a lot of the Nimbyism and political issues out of housing.
In the last five years [the state has demonstrated] it’s going to have more teeth around ensuring that there is adequate availability of land for housing, coupled with resources that they bring to help support the building of more deeply affordable housing.
Does everyone experiencing homelessness want help?
Studies have shown that … building that relationship and that rapport is paramount … particularly [from those who are] long-term homeless. You have had many traumatic experiences. You have probably encountered a lot of things that have failed you. You’re not gonna be very trusting. And so you really need to build a solid, trusting relationship. And that takes time. So that means a lot of interactions, a lot of encounters with someone to build that relationship and that trust. When that trust is established and when you have interventions that meet their needs, you do see [the] majority of people do want to access some type of services or housing.
I think we saw that really well in the Point-in-Time count with the significant increase in the number of people who were chronically homeless that were willing to come in and accept shelters because we offered the right type of environment for them to come in.
I think part of the challenge that people don’t realize is, particularly around housing first — there’s a lot of critics around housing first — but I don’t think it was ever resourced. I don’t think communities were trained on it. So you need to have well-trained people in terms of how to engage and you need to also have someone who has a manageable caseload. If you’ve got 50 different people you’re supposed to be case managing, there’s no way you are going to give the attention that is needed to build that relationship and that rapport.
What else would you tell me about solutions to homelessness we haven’t talked about?
We need to be aligned under a strategy that is comprehensive enough to address the issues. Just being able to focus at a system level. It’s a complex issue, right? There’s no silver bullet. You’re not going to be able to think this one little program over here is going to solve it. Or let’s just focus on mental health only. It’s this constellation that is so important. And I increasingly think about how we involve the private sector. Leaning in, more in terms of our relationships with the landlords, with the business community and the education around, How can we bring them in and [apply] … their expertise toward getting to the solutions that we need to? For example, on the business side, they know about optimization. They want results. We can do a lot more in terms of: How are we more efficiently delivering our services? How are we continuously improving from a process management standpoint? How can we partner better with the private sector that has the majority of the housing stock? What are ways that we’re able to unlock some of that existing housing?
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. In 2023, we are focusing on finding solutions to the lack of affordable housing in the Sacramento region. Solving Sacramento receives funding from the Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.