Billions of dollars and good intentions have not been enough to solve California’s homelessness crisis. But some communities are faring better than others. Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says that Lake Tahoe and Lake Elsinore are in that group. As cities, they don’t have much in common — but in their approach to tackling a growing population of unhoused people within their borders, they are on the same page. Mathews says it starts with the recognition that community conflicts are often the biggest obstacle to getting people off the street.
Read Mathews’ column below:
By JOE MATHEWS
Given up hope that California will ever house its 150,000-plus homeless population? Dubious that your community could ever reduce homelessness to zero?
If so, then you should go jump in a lake.
Either Tahoe or Elsinore will do.
South Lake Tahoe and Lake Elsinore — separated by 460 miles, 5,000 feet in elevation, and 25 degrees in average temperature — are demonstrating, with jet ski speed, how other California places might support all their homeless neighbors. Within two years, both municipalities could achieve “functional zero,” meaning homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring.
Such successes have two dimensions. First, COVID-19 has opened government spigots and new possibilities. Last year, South Lake Tahoe and Lake Elsinore joined the state’s $600 million Homekey program, which allows cities to purchase and convert motels into long-term housing for homeless people. Amidst the state’s disjointed approach to homelessness, Homekey, funded via the pandemic-inspired federal CARES Act, stands out for its flexibility and fast impact.
Second, more cities are realizing that the biggest obstacles to reducing homelessness are not the people living on the streets, but community conflicts over the issue. South Lake Tahoe and Lake Elsinore could take advantage of pandemic funding for homelessness because they had forged local consensus first.
In Tahoe, the cold was the inspiration for community leaders to open the Warm Room, a winter shelter, in 2015. At the time, there was no year-round shelter or permanent supportive housing in South Lake Tahoe, population 22,000 — or anywhere else in El Dorado County. To find supportive services, people experiencing homelessness there sometimes had to go to Placerville.
But in the year before COVID hit, the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, the nonprofit running the shelter, was winning backers for locally based, long-term support. COVID accelerated those efforts.
The coalition built a data sharing network to identify those most in need, and used the temporary Project Roomkey program to house 30 people at the EconoLodge. When Homekey funds became available in the fall, the coalition purchased three motels that are now being turned into permanent supportive housing for 70 people.
Cheyenne Purrington, the coalition’s executive director, says this investment is paying off in fewer emergency room visits — and demonstrating the wisdom of investing in smaller places. “With a community like South Lake Tahoe, we can end homelessness with these three properties,” she says. “If small communities don’t have resources to do this, people start bouncing around and end up in larger cities where there are services.”
Lake Elsinore, a Riverside County city of 70,000, is learning a similar lesson. In 2016, the city was divided over growing homeless encampments. So, in 2017, the city formed a homelessness task force with local officials, law enforcement, and concerned citizens. “Homelessness was such a divisive topic here,” says city official Nicole Dailey. “The task force allowed us to work.”
Lake Elsinore then offered little support. Homeless individuals often were sent to Riverside or the Coachella Valley. But the task force changed that. A nonprofit, Social Work Action Group, or SWAG, took over homeless services. The city used pre-pandemic grants to secure one motel for emergency housing, and a former convent in Perris for longer-term housing.
When Homekey arrived with $3.1 million, the city purchased a motel downtown. It opened December 30 with a nautical name, the Anchor.
When SWAG’s on-site manager Robel Kevorkian gave me a tour, the Anchor was immaculate. All 16 rooms have kitchenettes and baths. The staff include social workers, a nurse practitioner, an occupational therapist, and a substance-abuse counselor. There’s even a swimming pool. The Anchor provides only breakfast and lunch, but one current client is such a skilled chef that he often cooks dinner for everyone.
Homelessness is not over. From the Anchor, I could see a homeless person camped on the city’s Riverwalk. But functional zero for chronic homelessness isn’t far away. The city’s homeless count is down one-third since 2018. And the city is already planning expansion of the Anchor.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.