By Lavonna Martin, MPH, MPA, guest contributor
The ways in which communities across the country have addressed the complexity of homelessness over the past few decades is indeed varied, with mixed outcomes. In my more than twenty years of working to end homelessness, I have seen the “solutions” shift from building more shelters, to developing transitional housing, to increasing on-demand behavioral health treatment and services. None of these solutions really addressed the root of the problem: the lack of housing.
Finally, we are beginning to look at homelessness through a public health lens – i.e., as a critical social determinant of health. Housing that is long-term and affordable, along with access to health care, food and economic security, plays a critical role in supporting the health and well-being of all members of the community.
Housing must be addressed with the same determination in this country that compulsory education was 150 years ago, food security was in 1933 with the redistribution of food during the Great Depression, or economic security was with the establishment of the federal minimum wage law in 1938. Because of these policies, residents in need of emergency health care cannot be denied treatment in emergency departments across this nation; yet every day, we deny people the dignity of housing.
Housing should be available and affordable to all who need it, from the recent high school graduate looking for her first job, to the senior citizen living on a fixed income, to the homeless family living in their car, the young adult who boomerangs back home, to the homeless veteran who is struggling to integrate back into the community. All of us in Contra Costa deserve a safe, stable home that we can afford.
My vision for a healthy community is one in which all people have a sense of safety: the real safety that comes from knowing we all have sufficient income to meet our basic needs, that our children are well-fed in both body and mind, and that each one of us has a regular, consistent, permanent place to lay our head at night.
My hope is that we can join in this vision by ensuring that affordable and stable housing is a priority in Contra Costa.
Lavonna Martin is director of Contra Costa Health Services, Health, Housing, and Homeless Services, and a member of Ensuring Opportunity’s Leadership Team.