Advocates pursue innovative plans to help homeless neighbors in Davis

Second place (tie), news writing

Reed Youmans sits outside of Mishka’s Cafe, a coffee- stained mug in front of him, with tears in his eyes. He’s talking about why he has a passion for helping the homeless.

“These people are our neighbors,” Youmans said. Youmans, a lifetime Davis resident, has been instrumental in the past couple years in raising money so that Davis Community Meals and Housing (DCMH) can start major renovations on their main shelter and resource center at 1111 H Street.

The building will be rebranded as “Paul’s Place.” It will include a ground floor resource center that will provide the homeless with housing and employment opportunities, health services and basic amenities. The most significant change will occur in the facility’s housing options, revising the transitional housing program into 10 individual rooms on the second floor.

“The biggest change is that we will have a third and fourth floor that will provide [micro-housing and studio apartments],” DCMH Executive Director Bill Pride said.

Increased housing opportunities for the homeless couldn’t come soon enough. Since 2017, Davis has seen an increase in homelessness, a number now totaling 190 individuals.

So far, Youmans has helped raise $2.3 million of the $2.5 million that Paul’s place needs to start construction. Once the fundraising goal is met, Sutter Health will match that amount, adding up to a total of $5 million for Paul’s Place.

“Getting to Zero”

Sutter Health has contributed millions of dollars to other homeless housing services in the region through its program called “Getting to Zero,” which aims to reduce homelessness in Sacramento, Placer and Yolo counties.

“We have a lot of people giving, so there must be more [people that care] than just me,” Youmans said. Youmans, an apartment manager and owner, rents two apartments at lower than market value prices to homeless individuals through “Getting to Zero.” But the city has struggled to convince additional landlords to sign on to the program, so other unhoused individuals in the program must depend on public housing managed by the Yolo Housing Authority. And those housing units are limited in number.

Youmans blames Davis’ 0.5 percent vacancy rate as the reason why little affordable housing exists in the city. Without vacancies, landlords have no incentive to keep prices down, and no reason to open apartments to the “Getting to Zero” program.

Pride also believes that Davis needs to deal with its housing shortage to decrease homelessness.

“I think the best solution to help solve more of the problem is having more available housing opportunities for folks,” Pride said.

Pride’s thinking is in line with the official “Housing First” policy of the U.S. government. The policy focuses social service efforts on housing people above all else, and then providing them with other supportive services, like health care and mental health or substance abuse treatment.

HUD actually requires state and local governments to adopt the program to receive federal money for homeless services support.

Lack of prevention services

The problem with “Housing First” is that it can cause tunnel vision when it comes to ultimately lowering homeless rates. Traditionally, more money is put towards helping people get out of homelessness than preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place.

“Now, people are getting much smarter and trying to develop prevention programs,” said Joan Planell, Homeless and Social Services consultant for the City of Davis.

The City of Davis recently received a California Emergency Solutions and Housing grant of $173,834, half of which will go towards rental assistance, housing relocation, and stabilization services for people at risk of homelessness.

The other half of the funds will go towards emergency housing interventions.

There are some individuals who need much more than housing assistance to stay off the streets. They need medical treatment to solve mental health or substance abuse issues, which is only provided at the county level at this point. According to Yolo County’s 2019-20 Mental Health Services Act Annual Update, the high volume of cases and staff shortages are dampening the effectiveness of their mental health services, though there are proposals to address those problems moving forward.

“I know there’s a lot of conversation about the inadequacy as far as the ability to meet the demands of the community,” Planell said.

Even when the services are available, there are some individuals who are sometimes impossible to help under current law: people who are suffering from very severe mental illnesses.

Traditionally, these people were confined to mental institutions, but general opinion shifted away from those institutions in the mid-20th century. The slow process of shutting down mental institutions came to a head during the Reagan presidency when the last ones were closed.

“What the problem was is that they closed the mental institutions […] they did not send the money to the community to then have housing for people and support services,” Planell said.

Planell agrees that mental institutions had numerous flaws, but the current situation of close to zero supportive structures for the mentally ill is comparatively worse.

Now, seriously mentally ill people often refuse mental health services and people like Planell can’t do anything to help.

“The bar to actually force someone involuntarily to receive services is very high. You have to be an immediate danger to yourself or others,” Planell said.

Without supportive services, these individuals end up on the street sometimes indefinitely, creating an individual and public health risk.

In front of Mishka’s, a homeless man walked back and forth, catching Youmans eye. The individual was wearing a stained t-shirt and had an unshaven beard. He’s maybe in his late 40’s or early 50’s. It’s hard to tell from a distance.

“He graduated from UC Davis. He has a degree in fine arts from Davis,” Youmans said, gesturing to the man. “Until we are able to address mental health and addiction issues more effectively, these people will always be homeless.”