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California Bill Would Fund Sober Housing, Suggesting New Approach

Proposed legislation would allow for up to one-quarter of the state’s spending on homeless housing, assistance and prevention programs to go toward sober living environments. The bill would reverse a 2016 funding ban.

a person walking into a homeless shelter in sacramento, ca
Jacob Ikeokwu, 62, walks past a security guard at Shelter Inc., a non-profit homeless shelter in Sacramento's River District where he has been staying for the past two weeks, to do his laundry on Tuesday. Jacob is still trying to use his Housing Choice (formerly known as Section 8) voucher. I think they need to speed up a bit because we are really, really dying, he said.
(Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)
For years, progressive California Democrats have championed a “Housing First” approach to homelessness and drug addiction that prioritizes getting people into housing first, and connecting them to necessary addiction and recovery services once they’re off the street.

But a new bill, authored by Assemblyman Matt Haney, D-San Francisco, a member of the Legislative Progressive Caucus, seeks to complement that approach by redirecting some state housing funds to go toward drug-free sober living spaces — a practice California banned in 2016 with a law that bars the state from funding housing services that mandate sobriety.

“Our state’s laws right now don’t adequately support recovery, because they ban funding any housing where drug-free recovery is explicitly the goal,” Haney told The Bee on Wednesday. “That’s wrong.”

Assembly Bill 2479 would allow for up to 25 percent of the hundreds of millions of dollars the state spends on homeless housing, assistance and prevention programs to go toward sober living environments, where residents are required to abstain from substances, except for those using Medication-Assisted Therapy, such as suboxone.

“Fentanyl has changed everything,” said Haney, who lives in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood and serves as chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on Fentanyl, Opioid Addiction, and Overdose Prevention.

“We have to do everything we can to get people away from fentanyl. ... When someone is ready to take the step to be off of and away from drugs, we have to have a place for them that supports them in doing that.”

The Origins of ‘Housing First’

In 2016, then state-Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, authored a bill that banned California from funding housing programs that required people to be sober to access them. Mitchell’s bill is the one Haney now seeks to amend.

“We were really going for a radical departure from say the ‘Say No To Drugs’ era, the over-incarcerate, over-penalize era, where there was a refusal to offer public benefits to people who’d served their time,” Mitchell told The Bee.

Mitchell, who at the time was serving as chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, said research then showed that housing programs that forced sobriety requirements on people experiencing homelessness “just didn’t work.”

“My focus will remain that (housing) can’t be a carrot-stick approach,” said Mitchell, who now represents 12 cities in the Los Angeles area on the County Board of Supervisors. “I am not interested in reversing the Housing First approach. I am not supportive of losing housing if you have a hiccup, or relapse. I think that’s counter-intuitive.”

Haney’s bill explicitly states that, if passed, it would not evict anyone for such a hiccup, or begin mandating sobriety to get shelter. It would simply set aside funds for other options.

But it represents a more traditionally conservative approach — where people experiencing homelessness are offered services before they can access housing — taken by otherwise progressive lawmakers, who have long championed harm reduction efforts where homelessness and addiction are concerned. The bill is co-authored by Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, a fellow member of the Progressive Caucus.

San Francisco Democratic Mayor London Breed, whose own policies on crime and drugs have aligned with some conservative efforts, supports Haney’s bill.

Haney hovers in both approaches, and believes that, while no one should be made homeless because of their drug use, the state should support those who voluntarily abstain from substances in sober-only living spaces, where sobriety is “self-initiated.”

If a tenant relapses, they will be offered recovery support. They may face eviction if their “behavior substantially disrupts or impacts the welfare of the recovery community,” according to the bill, but can reenter with “a renewed commitment to living in a housing setting targeted to people in recovery with an abstinence focus.” If they are unable to stay sober or choose not to be, the housing program must help them find other long-term housing.

“It’s not about punishment, or kicking people to the street,” Haney said.

“It’s about the goal of the housing environment. If someone is willing to take on that level of personal responsibility, there should always be a place for them. It’s dangerous and entirely backwards to force somebody who is ready for this courageous, unimaginably challenging step, to force them into an environment they know will lead them back to drug use.”

His colleagues agree; the bill passed through the Assembly with 72 votes in support and no votes against (8 lawmakers were absent and did not vote). It will be heard next in the Senate Housing Committee.

Budget Deficit Could Factor In

Funding a variety of housing options can be a good thing, Mitchell said, if there are enough resources to go around. But confronted with an enormous budget shortfall, those resources might not be there — and could result in lost funding for preexisting services.

“If the goal is to create spaces where people can choose to work toward sobriety in sober living, that’s one thing,” Mitchell said. “But if that has to be a mandate for one to be housed, research doesn’t support that.”

Mitchell voiced concerns about the 25 percent funding allocation — a number Haney said “was a good first step to provide some options” — given not just the deficit, but the recently-passed Proposition 1, which will require counties to spend a chunk of their state behavioral health dollars on housing rather than services. The $6.4 billion in bond money voters approved as part of the measure will fund mental health and addiction treatment beds and supportive housing.

“There’s going to be a lot of funding that is going to be deployed for supportive housing in the coming years, and Prop. 1 is a part of that,” Haney said. “But also, Prop. 1 will fund other types of treatment ... and long-term recovery drug housing is an an important part of the strategy, and right now the state can’t fund it by law. We’re going to have massive gaps in the system if we continue to ban state funding for drug free recovery housing.”

Reexamining Harm Reduction

Haney also said it’s time to reexamine the harm reduction approach.

Harm reduction seeks to minimize the consequences of drug use by providing drug users with services they need, without demanding they abstain from use. Harm reduction services can include any number of public health measures, from safe syringe exchange programs (which conservative counties have routinely banned), HIV and hepatitis testing, Medication-Assisted Treatment, and nalaxone and condom distribution.

“I do think harm reduction, as we understood it 10 to 15 years ago, should not be the strategy today in light of the dangers and threats of fentanyl,” he said.

Nearly 6,000 people in California died in 2021 alone from opioid overdoses, according to the most recent date from the California Department of Public Health. Of the roughly 227 homeless people who died in Sacramento County last year, the coroner’s office listed fentanyl as a cause for 47 of them.

“There is some version of harm reduction that can support our response to fentanyl,” he said. “If someone is a fentanyl user, they should still be able to access housing. That’s a form of harm reduction. But if they’re using fentanyl, we should use everything we can to get them off.”

He also supports the use of Medication-Assisted Therapy, and is currently authoring another bill that would make methadone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction, more accessible.

The two bills together are both concerned with modernizing the state’s drug and housing laws to better meet the needs of the fentanyl and homelessness crises — even if that means a departure from historically progressive stances.

“It’s dangerous to just say that the tools and strategies, when most people were using cocaine or heroin, should be the same for when people are using fentanyl,” Haney said.

“The numbers, the deaths speak for themselves. Clearly the strategies that the state was using to confront drug use and overdose aren’t working.”

©2024 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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