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Joe Supervielle: Welcome to voices in local government and ICMA podcast. Today, we welcome Chuck Flacks, an independent consultant with Flacks Seed Consulting, dedicated to ending homelessness and poverty. Thanks for joining us today, Chuck.
Chuck Flacks: Thanks for having me.
Joe Supervielle: Today our specific issue, obviously homelessness is very complicated. Lots of sub-topics. We are going to dive into encampments, but before we do that, just a little bit of a starting point, kind of on the bigger picture. Can you for our audience today, what are your kind of top common myths about homelessness that perpetuate that you just don't think are accurate? Let's start there or for some context?
Chuck Flacks: I think for me the thing that people ought to understand is that homelessness is not a particular thing. There are many different reasons why people might be living without a home. In fact, probably the largest number of people in this country right now are either have been evicted or are facing eviction and are facing the prospect of being homeless. And that's largely an economic issue. When people think of quote, unquote homeless people, they're often talking about people who have signs or are clearly intoxicated or might have some kind of mental illness and are on this streets panhandling. And the reality is that some of those people may not even be in fact homeless. They may in fact have quite had a place to go every single night, but they're engaging in behaviors that might make you or people in a community feel uncomfortable and we've chosen to how label those behaviors as homelessness.
My perspective on this is that the best way that local governments can act are to think about how to address behaviors, which include living in encampments. And so, the bottom line is when people are homeless, it's the issue of not having access to affordable housing.
The other issues that come up around alcohol and drug use around mental health are behavioral issues that can be addressed in different ways using different systems of care. And we can talk more about that.
Joe Supervielle: It's hard to separate those, the kind of two categories, although maybe it shouldn't.
Chuck Flacks: Cities often deal with what's referred to as transients or transient population. And in many cases, there is a sub-sector of our society, many of them young people who are moving around the country and I think that that given the pandemic, given what is now being called the great resignation, We're going to see more and more people kind of cruising around and looking for opportunities, looking for the next thing. And some of them are going to be living outside. Some of they'll be living in cars. These are in fact homeless people but there's so many, each person has his or her own story. Every homeless person is an individual with his or her own story. And it's difficult to... I think it's wrong actually to talk about the homeless. I think we really need to be thinking in terms of people's individual issues and problems, and how do we confront those? But I do think that the issue of creating housing and enough housing for people to live in your community is one clear way of dealing with the problem.
Joe Supervielle: Okay. So encampments themselves, it already seems like sometimes people can have a misunderstanding or not the correct definition. So can you give the audience a clear definition on what makes an encampment and then, from there maybe also touch on sanction versus not sanctioned depending on where it is?
Chuck Flacks: One tent does not an encampment make. I think there are quite a few situations where people are living tents on public property. There was a recent Supreme court decision, the Boise decision, which doesn't allow, but it makes it difficult for law enforcement to move somebody just for sleeping on a public property when there's not enough shelter to take that person to. And so law enforcement and local governments are struggling with how to move people who are sleeping and living in areas that are public, but that are not designed for that kind of use. And that's a whole issue around law enforcement. It's an issue around creating shelter space for people or housing for people, encampments sort of more properly understood are in some respects as social construct of people living without homes.
They tend to be the worst situations of people living without homes coming together for reasons that, in some respects are understandable and part of human nature. I mean, people want to come together to protect themselves, to feed themselves, to support each other. So there's a natural, when people are living on the streets or living in canyons or a stream or things like that, there's a natural desire to want to be together. The problem is that there are often sites of real exploitation and mistreatment of people and criminal activity. And then, in addition, because there's not facilities for going to the bathroom and... If some is an alcoholic or drug user, IV drug user, there's no place to dispose of needles or things like that. So, it becomes a real public health issue.
Then, here in California and in Southern California, where I live. We have a real problem with people living in groups, in fire prone areas. And we've actually seen some fires occur because people are living in the brush and will start a campfire or something like that and it will then get out of control. The common wisdom or evidence based practice around encampments is that the goal is really to move people out of encampments as quickly as possible. And what that entails is providing incentives and for people to relocate and move to either transitional housing or permanent supportive housing as quickly as possible. And then, if anything that's left behind gets disposed or, if there are valuables that are left behind, they're held for a certain period of time. But the bottom line is we need to clear those encampments because they tend to grow, and they tend to continue to be real problems for the community.
The issue around sanctioning camp is that in certain places like Portland and San Francisco and Oakland and other communities, there's just not enough shelter. There isn't a clear way to where are we going to put people? Something that's been tried, I don't know the status of it currently in those cities, but something that's been tried is putting up porta potties, maybe providing trash containers, possibly even giving some financial support to people living in those encampments to try to keep things clean and kind of police each other. And from my perspective, and from what I've observed, this is not a good public policy, they've just been disasters. And then courage, real exploitation of women and trafficking and drug use and drug sales. And, I really don't think that's ought to be what we see as a solution on the part of local government to addressing these encampments.
Joe Supervielle: Yeah. And you mentioned Boise to, for the audience Martin versus Boise, correct me if I get any of these details wrong, but judicial ruling in the ninth circuit basically said, "cities counties cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances, if there's not enough homeless shelter or available public housing for that population". And in 2019, the Supreme court declined to hear it, which essentially just kind of let the other ruling stand. Is that accurate?
Chuck Flacks: Yeah. I think that if we're going to get legal about it, there's definitely attention. I've been talking to city attorneys here in the Santa Barbara County, around how do we craft ordinances that really, makes it possible to move people out of these dangerous areas. But by the same token, the way the Boise decision has been, dealt with or not dealt with, means that it's harder for law enforcement to do anything unless there are safe alternatives. And I think from a human dignity standpoint, We ought to be creating safe and clean, dignified places for people to stay and live. And we shouldn't just kind of turn our backs on people living in unsafe conditions. It doesn't make sense.
Joe Supervielle: Right. And you named a variety of reasons why the encampments are not working. Safety, kind of being an umbrella topic, but whether it's fires or just the activity within, it's not going to be a long term solution. But devil’s advocate a little bit is if those people are... I want to say choosing but if they end up there and it seems like the least bad choice. Maybe, there's still that gray area not just the can you, but should you be forcing people out if those other things are not available yet? Which we'll get to, and maybe ways to make it happen, the better alternatives, but I mean, what would your response be? If someone said, " Hey, I don't like these encampments either, but we don't have a better option".
Chuck Flacks: I guess I want to push back on that, from the perspective of what we are investing in our communities. Cities often don't have the infrastructure for mental health, alcohol and drug programs and outreach of support of people living on the streets per se, but often counties do have those resources and increasingly state and federal government funds are coming down to address this issue specifically. So one thing that's often said and it's one of the myths that you asked about initially is that people want to be homeless. And I would argue that there may be a small subset of people, particularly young people who are traveling around. As I said, looking for opportunities, who may say this is what I want to be doing. What we have are people that have burned so many bridges in their lives, or they are so involved in their alcohol and drug use, or they have severe and persistent mental health issues that they themselves don't quite know what the next right step is.
Rather than say this is our only option. I would argue that there are other options through the mental health community, through the public health Community, through alcohol and drug treatment and through housing creation and shelter creation that can provide alternatives. And they don't have to be necessarily even permanent alternatives. They're more and more... They're literally thousands now of these models of temporary structures, many of which are private, which have plumbing, which have you heating and air conditioning that allow for people to have a private, clean space that doesn't involve living in these kind of sanctioned encampments. So, I don't think it's true to argue that there are alternatives. I think there are a lot of alternatives and then it becomes a question of public investment.
Joe Supervielle: Okay. You just start touching on them. The next or the biggest question of this whole episode might be okay, encampments, let's close them. Let's find a way to do something better, but then where? The question is where? So it seems like temporary housing is the first step, but that's kind of just a generic term. Can you start giving more details on what does that mean? Where is it? Who's paying for it? Tell us how.
Chuck Flacks: One of the greatest things that's come in our country around this issue. It's really not a new issue. It was under the George W. Bush administration, created a set of federal programs that continue, and that are being even more funded through recovery act funds. And in some cases, state funds and county funds each county. And sometimes in more than one agency in a county have something called, "continuum of care". And so this is a federal policy that is translated down to local communities, and a continuum of care is a voluntary association. And it's almost like a little quasi-government that takes state, federal and local resources and allocates them for the purpose of ending homeless. And it includes something called a, "coordinated entry system", which means that we're going to go out and assess people based on their status and their needs, and then prioritize services based on vulnerable they are as a population. And this exists across the country. There's something like 700 continuum's of care throughout the nation does.
Joe Supervielle: Sorry to interrupt. Does it does part of status mean willingness? Does that include their willingness or?
Chuck Flacks: No. So, willingness is a really important issue. You're not going to be able to do anything with people who are unwilling and so then it becomes... There's a bit of a professional judgment issue about clinical ability to make that choice. So if someone is in crisis, if someone is in a flagrant mental health crisis, most jurisdictions have the authority to hold somebody for a minimum of 72 hours against their will to determine what the next right step is for that person. Different local areas have more strict or less... Not really less. I think that 72 hour rule is a pretty standard rule, but in general, you don't want to force people. You want to encourage by providing opportunities and next right steps for people. And so, that's where the infrastructure around outreach comes in.
And there are... The term that's used in the field is called "housing first". Housing first means rapidly moving people from the streets into permanent housing with the enough supportive services to keep them housed, giving them what they need and what they really want to keep them housed.
And there are models of this that have been evidence based and tested around the country. It typically starts with a strong outreach organization and case management organizations that can bring to bear multidisciplinary teams of people, which include law enforcement, include mental health professionals, alcohol, and drug professionals. But the idea is, it takes for some people, particularly chronically homeless people. It can take dozens or even possibly hundreds of interactions with this person to help them realize that where they are now is not as good as where we can help them go. And that's a trust exercise. We have to deliver, we have to follow through. We can't just put people on a bus and move them out. I think that's one of the myths around homelessness is that all we need to do is put them on a bus and, and move them out of here. And that's not solving the problem.
Joe Supervielle: Then it’s someone else’s problem.
Chuck Flacks: Exactly.
Joe Supervielle: Which is not helping because you might be on the wrong end of that. And more importantly, the people themselves are not really getting helped.
Chuck Flacks: More and more, there are these organizations growing up around the nation, who can really do the step-by-step process of getting someone from the streets and into permanent housing. And, the test case for this, where it worked remarkably well in Times Square, a little over 10 years ago. There was a kind of an experiment done in this housing first model. And New York city actually has the largest population of homeless people in the country, but very few people on the streets, compared to some of the places like Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland. And it's not just because of the weather it's because of the creation of this model of getting people off the streets and into safe spaces.
Joe Supervielle: You said housing first, how do work programs fit into that? Is it simultaneous in a way? Is it okay, literally housing first, but then we got to involve some type of work program for the long term plan at the ICMA annual conference?. That just happened in early October. There's a great session. Aurora, Colorado had some success with literally called work the program, there are others out there. So how do you think that ties in? What is the timing? How do those two mesh?
Chuck Flacks: So that's a great question. And I'm a huge believer in workforce development and create career pathways for people. I personally believe that the best pathway out of poverty is a job. It's the best quote unquote social program. And so what we find amongst the able-bodied people who are homeless, the vast majority of them either already are already working or are eager to work. So work programs are a critical component of getting people off the streets. What's sad is that sometimes because of the nature of work in our country, sometimes jobs don't pay enough to pay for housing. So we have many people who are in fact, working full time, who are living in shelters.
Joe Supervielle: Well, you said it earlier, affordable housing, that affordable is the key word. And that can mean different things to different people.
Chuck Flacks: That's right.
Joe Supervielle: As you go up or down the scale, but at the bottom end, particularly in California, but that's not the only place. The math just doesn't work, but it's still a starting point to not only supplement the economics or total funding to help a person help a family, but to give them the dignity, respect, the goal, just the work.
Chuck Flacks: Absolutely. I don't disagree at all. And in fact the homeless people that we've been able to house most rapidly, within the space of 60 days or so in the agencies that I've connected with are the people who are working. Homelessness can be a brief experience of a person or a family. If someone is working and, able to connect to the economy. What we have though is a growing population of people, in our country, who are senior and disabled, who are falling through the gaps in the social safety net. And so what we're going to see, I mean, the movie, no man land, is an example of this. We're going to see people at the margins who living in cars, living, putting more of a strain on our homeless services system who are, are getting some social benefits, but they often aren't enough.
Again, it's the affordable housing issue. If someone is making $900 a month and their benefits can't afford food and housing and their medications, and they're disabled. They can't work, that doesn't mean that they shouldn't have a place to live. It really, is on the public systems of care to figure out alternatives. I wanted to return to something you asked about before, there's an organization called, "Dignity Moves", and this is just one example. And the reason why I bring them up is as a test case and people can Google them. They've a motto, which is a new rung on the ladder, on the housing ladder. And what they're doing is they're taking modular structures from a variety of different sources and placing them either permanently or temporarily on different sites in cities, across California.
And the idea is that we can rapidly create for low cost shelter are options that are private. So each person gets their own room. They get a locking door, they have their dignity and personal space and somewhere to store their belongings. This can work for transitional housing, but it can also work for permanent housing. And so I think one of the things that cities ought to be exploring rather than encampments are these lower cost options for housing that may in fact mean changes to zoning and building codes, but it represents a real opportunity for people to be able to afford to live in their community.
Joe Supervielle: In general, the public is supportive of those kinds of measures temporary or permanent housing, but not many people want them in their neighborhood just to be Frank about it.
Chuck Flacks: Absolutely.
Joe Supervielle: What have you seen in local government where the general or the theoretical support is there, but then when it comes time to finding real sites, a lot of people just kind of roadblock it or say, well, not here...
Chuck Flacks: You're telling the story of California and that's..., And unfortunately this story is not just housing for homeless people. It's housing for all people at all income levels.
Joe Supervielle: Same thing I said earlier that scale, no one wants whatever's below them to be encroaching on their area.
Chuck Flacks: Exactly. Even nice homes. The city of Santa Barbara just had a huge fight around some open space that was going to be developed for luxury homes and the community fought back and actually raised millions of dollars to purchase the property and turned it into a park. Which is nice, but there's a tremendous housing shortage, particularly in California, but in communities around the country. And a lot of it is because unfortunately, local governments have a tendency to cave in to the political pressure that opposition groups can place on the creation of anything new. And there's been, one of the responses that we've seen in the California state legislature is a removal of local authority to site housing projects, so be careful, there's something... It's a cautionary tale that the state legislature is flexing muscle.
And now forcing, basically eliminating single family zoning, and allowing property owners to sub-divide properties without approval and turn it into whatever they want, multiple housing, multiple units on a particular lot. So that's an example of where the opposition, the obstruction has created a demand at higher levels of government that then supersede the local authorities. And I don't think anybody likes that. I think everybody is in favor of more local control and having a local say. And so I think there is a political component here of how do you manage perceptions? How do you create a feeling of good will amongst a community for all the different types of people that live in your community? The good news is that one of the things that we've seen over the last nearly 30 years in the affordable housing world, is that most of the housing that's created that's quote unquote, affordable is indistinguishable from market rate housing.
So, this fear that it's going to deflate your property values has just not proven to be true. And in fact in older communities where you have older housing stock, sometimes new quote unquote affordable housing is of higher quality and higher value than the housing around it. So you're actually seeing an increase in value property values as a result of the placement of these affordable housing projects. So there's tremendous innovation in the field around how to make this happen. I don't think we're lacking in ideas. I think you're onto something and that we're lacking in political will and maybe public acceptance of new housing models to be able to really allow everybody to be able to afford to live in our communities. But I think it's not what you might necessarily think. I don't think this is a liberal or conservative issue, because I think that in many cases, some of the biggest opposition to this development are people Who might consider themselves liberal but they're afraid of density or they're afraid of traffic or they're afraid of impacts to their schools.
It is a public conversation. It's something that we all need to be mindful of, that there's a shortage of housing. There's a decline in our infrastructure and decline in our housing stock. And what we're seeing that as rents going up around the country and the economy currently struggling. So we really need to figure out ways to think about housing as something that communities embrace and address these issues in a public forum.
Joe Supervielle: Okay. So let's say that part gets worked out and a local jurisdiction has kind of the green light to move forward on some temporary or permanent housing. You touch on a few non-profit types or just private business, but there's also obviously taxes and local bond type things, ARPA funding. So how does it get paid for?
Chuck Flacks: So affordable housing funding is one of the most complicated things to talk about because, if the market could take care of it would. And so that's one of the concerns that, the rightful concerns that that city management should have is how are we going to pay for these things? The short answer to your question is, We create a maker for housing that the private sector would pay for. And so the easy solution is something that's been called for by Matthew Desmond, who is a scholar. He wrote a book called ,"evicted", and it's part of the Biden agenda, which is we currently have something that people might know as section eight, which is a voucher system for rents. It's actually now called, "the housing choice voucher". Basically, if anybody whose income qualifies for it then gets this voucher and it pays market rate rent in the community.
So, the person becomes essentially indistinguishable from somebody paying the full rent because the landlord receives the full rent, but they only pay a third of their income. And the federal government pays the rest. The tragedy in our country is that this is beautiful vehicle for subsidizing housing. And only one in five people are able to get the voucher, even though they qualify for it financially. So we have these tremendously long waiting lists for people to be able to get these vouchers, the Biden infrastructure, the big bill, the build back better bill is going to augment that we may see many more vouchers in the system if that passes, but rental assistance is a market way of addressing the problem because it creates an incentive for builders to build, for landlords to open their doors to people in terms of... Go ahead.
Joe Supervielle: Well, I was just going to say Those... You're from California. You've seen it firsthand there and that's kind of where it makes national news in Los Angeles. And you mentioned New York, but it's not just a coastal problem. I want to be clear about that. This is everywhere, bigger city, smaller towns, the scale, or the size might be different. But the building of these houses you're talking about seems to me as applicable anywhere.
Chuck Flacks: I recommend the book evicted by Matthew Desmond. He describes the Midwest. He is talking about Detroit. He's talking about communities in the Midwest, where ostensibly housing is pretty affordable, but there's a real shortage of quality housing, really throughout our nation. It's an opportunity for are developers, for city managers and city staff to work with the development community to identify land that's develop able. To maybe even create opportunities for land use at lower costs. You mentioned bond measures. One of the benefits of doing a bond is that you could potentially write down the cost of land that would create incentives for people to build.
The ARPA funds that some of the federal funds that we're talking about are short-term, one-time funding. We're not going to see solutions to the housing stock come out of that. So I think that we need to be thinking longer term strategies about land use, that create incentive for the creation of new housing at all different income levels that allow for people to live in the communities that they want to live in. it becomes this kind of... It is essentially an infrastructure issue in terms of how you pay for it. Something that I've seen is that people... If people recognize the economic benefit of creating housing. California used to have something called re-development, there's still laws on the books that allow for local governments to capture the property taxes for any kind of growth in their communities. And cities rely on growth. Cities and counties rely on growth to be able to pay for their services.
So, there's a real incentive for cities to create housing opportunities. What may be broken to a certain extent is that land cost and building cost versus what people are able to pay. And so we have to start really looking at those equations in your jurisdictions and figure out ways to make things more affordable, either through rental subsidy, which there is some funding, at the state and federal levels or through some kind of local resources that would write down land costs or provide incentives to developers. And I've seen it work in a lot of different ways on both sides, the side and the demand side.
Joe Supervielle: Thanks for your insight today. It can seem overwhelming even just this conversation. There's serious problem, there's hope because we've seen some answers or solutions work. How do you avoid burnout or frustration on the seemingly insurmountable problem?
Chuck Flacks: Well, so guess I believe in our country, and I believe in our systems of government and ultimately the Goodwill of our populace, I really do think that everyone believes that people have rights to basic needs. People have a right to food. People have a right to shelter. People have a right to clean clothes. People have a right to education and how we deliver those services, how do we pay for those services becomes a political and philosophical debate. But what keeps me going is the recognition that housing is something that everyone deserves. Everyone deserves a home and I don't think anybody disagrees with that. So, I don't find...It's an issue that I feel really excited about because we're a very divided country now politically, but there are many issues that unite us.
I mean, I think you mentioned the issue of work, that one of the few things that passes Congress repeatedly is the workforce development funds. With almost no opposition and almost no votes because people believe in the opportunity to work and the opportunity to find good jobs. And I think people believe in the opportunity to have a place to live in a home. And so I think the solutions then become more clear, more obvious, more doable and less frustrating when we recognize the common ground that we share in wanting to create a democracy in a place for everybody to live in and succeed. And so, that's what keeps me going. And then I think it's also important to recognize, particularly in the time of COVID that we need to have self-care where everybody ought to have ways to take care of themselves emotionally, mentally, physically, to keep going with this stuff, because it is hard. So take care of yourself too.
Joe Supervielle: Well, if the audience has any follow up questions or wants to get in touch with you to get into more detail, or just for some guidance on their specific scenarios, Chuck's email is email@example.com. The website's the same URL. We'll have both of those posted on the podcast, webpage, along with a few other resources Chuck's recommended. And again, I encourage people who have already registered or registration is still open for digital on demand for ICMAs annual conference to get on there and check out a few of the topics we had and presenters there as well. So Chuck, thanks again for your time. And we'll be in touch with more content to help our members with this difficult, but important topic in the future.
Chuck Flacks: Joe, thank you so much for this opportunity. And I would love to talk to your membership about this issue. I think it's critical and I think there are some really clear solutions. So thank you.
Chuck Flacks, Owner and Principal, Flacks Seed Consulting
Chuck Flacks dispels common myths of “homelessness”, explains the problems with encampments, shares ideas and proven methods for alternatives, and discusses the complex financial and political realities local governments must navigate to help every member of their communities.