County government is the sole local government entity responsible for social welfare programs. In contrast, cities, by their very charter, deliver only a narrow set of services, such as parks, police and public works.
Why then do cities often take the lead in dealing with homelessness when it is the primary responsibility of county government?
From my viewpoint as a former elected official, I believe the reason is because city government is “closest” to residents and tends to be the most responsive. When counties neglect their core mission to provide social welfare to homeless individuals, cities must then fill the gap. Unfortunately, this redirects resources away from providing city services (think potholes and libraries).
County government often gets distracted by issues beyond their core functions and is therefore partially to blame for the sheer number of homeless individuals in our community. This results in exposing our residents and neighborhoods to excessive litter, thievery, discarded syringes, and risky manic behavior by some (but certainly not all) of our community members who are homeless.
Adequate housing for every individual is a universal problem, but proposed solutions must begin at the local level. So, what should our county government do?
I believe the county should create an intake center and temporary tent dormitories on a portion of the fairgrounds property. This 150-acre parcel is 100 percent controlled by the county, so there is nothing standing in the way of implementing this proposal tomorrow.
Such an emergency temporary facility would provide basic shelter, showers, food, storage of belongings, and should permit animal companions. Social welfare and medical services would be provided onsite. Once set up, homeless individuals would be strongly encouraged to vacate neighborhoods and seek shelter at the county facility.
Individuals would be triaged based on their individual needs. If the person is a veteran, every possible federal program that is available to veterans will be provided. If the person is from out-of-state and wants to be reunited with loved ones, free transport back home should be encouraged. If the person suffers from severe mental illness, county medical staff would provide diagnosis onsite, and if necessary, a judge may determine whether the individual should be compelled to free treatment. This would undoubtedly be the most compassionate course of action to care for those with severe mental illness.
If the person is drug addicted, services will be provided onsite to treat their addiction. If the person is homeless due to economic conditions, having a safe place to sleep would prepare them to get back on their feet again, and would allow greater focus on obtaining employment, job training, and securing a stable permanent residence.
Individuals utilizing this county facility would have their stay limited to six months. Counseling and wrap around services would be available to all and provided by existing county staff and non-profit partners.
An integral part of any solution designed to address the plight of the unhoused must include rigorous honesty on the part of legislators and advocates alike. Silicon Valley is one of the most expensive places to live in the world and may not be the best long-term housing option for everyone.
As Americans, we all enjoy the freedom to live anywhere, we can afford within the 50 states. It is not possible for everyone to live here, and it would be irresponsible to ignore the finite “carrying capacity” in the local housing equation.
As a society, we can continue to dance around the problem indefinitely, or we can actually make concrete progress in our lifetime.
The county has both the responsibility and the money. The community is waiting.