In Need of a Place to Belong

Back Commentary Jan 17, 2019 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

“There’s no place like home” is a familiar phrase, evoking images of a warm hearth and family. For most of us, home is a place of refuge, where we feel safe and can rest and recharge from a long day. It’s something I’ve thought on extensively while producing this month’s issue on housing.

There are, of course, many problems — whether causes or consequences — associated with homelessness, from drug addiction and trauma to incarceration and canyon-sized gaps in our mental health treatment systems. But I think the driving cause is isolation. When problems lead people to drugs, alcohol or mental illness, those without friends, family or some other support system to hold them up tend to fall into homelessness.

 Too many members of our community don’t have a front door to shut out the rest of the world for a night. California has one-quarter of the nation’s homeless, with 130,000 people, according to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s a number I find heartbreaking.
According to the most recent official count, 3,665 people in Sacramento County are homeless on any given night, sleeping on concrete or any wayward spot they can find to ward off the cold. That’s a 30 percent increase between 2015 and 2017. Based on a variety of reports, the number of people who are homeless in neighboring counties totals about another 2,000.  

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg recently announced that the city’s largest homeless shelter, scheduled to close in December, would remain open until summer. That will give 100 people a place to sleep. He challenged other City Council members to each find 100 extra beds in their districts.  

A warm bed on a cold night is a start. But the homeless population needs more permanent options.

Listen Now: Lifting People Out of Homelessness

Related: Homeless in California—What the Data Reveals

In November, nearly two-thirds of voters approved diverting $2 billion in taxes to provide housing for people with mental illness.  There are some nontraditional, but very effective, ways to spend those funds and other housing dollars to address the shortage of shelter for those who need it.
Near Austin, Texas, Community First! provided homes for 200 chronically homeless people with a combination of permanent RVs and 300- and 400-square-foot “micro-homes” clustered around common space on 27 acres and is expanding another 20 acres.  

Recent remodels of hotels on Market Street in San Francisco have produced mini-apartments with shared space for cooking and socializing. It’s a model used by other cities that can be adapted to provide job training, counseling or drug treatment.  

Also in Austin, a housing charity (New Story) and construction company (ICON) developed a home with components that can be constructed from a 3D printer, making the plans accessible and affordable.  Their one-bedroom homes are designed to be clustered around a common cooking and social space. The cost for these 650-square-foot homes can be as low as $4,000, and can each be built in 24 hours.

These co-housing models, and others like it, connect housing with space for treatment and job training. Most important, they create communities for those without family support; a foundation for creating a self-sufficient life.   

And if the region can’t find a solution on land for this type of housing, perhaps we can look to the water. Consider a ship permanently berthed on a river or at a port to provide co-housing on a grand scale. Former staterooms could be transformed into living space for hundreds of people, with other spaces dedicated to support programs. The built-in infrastructure, such as kitchens, could be collective gathering places.   
Making this work would require untangling a lot of complex issues, from costs of acquisition to meeting public health and drinking water standards. And it would require massive coordination by elected officials and social service agencies across bureaucratic lines throughout the region.  

I admit that it’s an audacious idea, but the number of homeless in our region is growing. Perhaps we need to think on a grander scale to find an untraditional solution.

The solution to homelessness is a home that meets their needs. We need the type of housing that helps the homeless help themselves, where they can form communities, and find services and support. Just like the rest of us who have an address where we feel safe, they need a place to belong.

P.S. For more ideas on addressing homelessness in the Capital Region, read “We Must Think Locally to End Homelessness,” by Ben Avey of Sacramento Steps Forward.


VisitorBob Chase, AIA (not verified)February 10, 2019 - 11:30pm

Winnie, excellent article with some great ideas. I am going to share it with my colleagues on our ULI Housing Committee. Thanks, Bob

Michele McCormick (not verified)March 4, 2019 - 3:46pm

Thank you for your ongoing commitment to community! The fact that there is no model for success in eliminating or even reducing homelessness is the ultimate in frustration. The best news is that you and your magazine continue to play a key role in focusing attention on this enormous societal issue. Creative minds will surely find the answer.