Amid fentanyl epidemic, California bill aims to add more sober homeless housing

Gwendolyn Bryant died of a fentanyl overdose when she was supposed to be celebrating her granddaughter’s 15th birthday.

When Bryant didn’t show up to the party, her daughter, Sheenia Branner, was angry. Branner assumed her mother had relapsed again, giving in to the temptation while living among opioid users in one of San Francisco’s residential hotels for formerly homeless people.

But days later, that anger turned to sorrow upon learning Bryant had been found dead, alone in her room. She was 58. “I was so proud of her when she got her apartment,” Branner recalled. “But it was a blessing and a curse.”

Bryant died in late 2020 in one of the hundreds of homeless housing sites across California designed to provide supportive services, including drug treatment and counseling. On the recommendation of health and homelessness researchers, many of the facilities don’t require residents to accept services or stay clean after moving in. The reasoning is that homeless people need a safe and stable place to live before they’re ready to address their mental health or drug issues. But critics say that makes it hard for residents who want to maintain sobriety while their neighbors are getting high, putting them at greater risk of relapse and falling back into homelessness.

In an effort to create more drug-free housing options, a new legislative bill from a Bay Area lawmaker aims to allow state agencies to set aside up to 25% of supportive housing funding for sober living facilities. Currently, state-funded permanent supportive housing sites can’t require residents to stay off drugs.

“It’s counterproductive and flat-out wrong to have people go through a detox or short-term residential treatment program and then force them back into an environment where drug use is widely tolerated,” said State Assemblymember Matt Haney, a Democrat from San Francisco who introduced the bill.

The proposal, also backed by the Salvation Army, which runs drug rehab centers statewide, would seek to prevent evictions at sober living sites by ensuring residents who relapse enter intensive recovery programs rather than lose their housing.

Assembly Bill 2479 is part of a broader push to rethink the state’s approach to bringing people off the street amid a deepening fentanyl epidemic and growing public frustration over homelessness. California has an estimated 181,000 homeless residents, making up almost 30% of the country’s unhoused population.

Since 2016, California has required permanent supportive housing programs that have received billions in state funding to adhere to a “Housing First” model — meaning accepting homeless people without preconditions. While the programs must offer services, residents don’t have to accept them. Numerous studies have found the approach can improve people’s quality of life and help them stay housed, though findings on reducing drug use are mixed.

Housing First “has proven to successfully promote housing stability, improve some health outcomes, and reduce the use of high-cost services,” the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wrote in a recent report.

SAN JOSE, CA – AUGUST 23: An exterior view of Second Street Studios, a supportive housing development, on Aug. 23, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

But given the deadly reality of fentanyl, more officials and advocates — citing reports of overdose deaths and poor conditions at some homeless housing sites — have begun questioning whether Housing First is the only solution. And although the approach has remained the bipartisan policy of choice at the federal level under successive administrations dating back to President George W. Bush, it’s become the target of conservative lawmakers and activists nationwide who contend it’s at the root of Democratic leaders’ inability to solve the crisis in states like California.

Haney, traditionally a progressive Democrat, said he doesn’t want to eliminate the Housing First strategy altogether. But he made clear he believes California’s policy needs urgent reform, noting the federal government recently updated its supportive housing guidelines to include drug-fee options.

“To the extent that Housing First is a one-size-fits-all approach — and that approach is, ‘Here’s the key, good luck,’ —  it’s very dangerous, and it’s failing,” Haney said.

Housing First supporters push back hard on such characterizations, emphasizing that the approach doesn’t mean “housing only” and that retention rates at facilities following the model are typically around 90%.

“I would say the model speaks for itself – people are getting off the streets and staying housed,” said Jennifer Loving, chief executive of Destination: Home, a Silicon Valley homelessness solutions nonprofit.

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