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Are homeless shelters a right? In some cases, yes, according to new state law.

Are homeless shelters a right? In some cases, yes, according to new state law.

By Charles Felix and Machael Smith

A new tool for assisting the unsheltered homeless population is on the way from Sacramento. Here in Tulare County, some of the most vivid examples of homelessness, such as Oval Park in Visalia, Tule River Trail in Porterville, and Santa Fe Trail in Tulare, are well known to local residents. Fortunately, California has recently passed legislation that provides for unprecedented flexibility for the development of homeless shelters—and these facilities are the key for getting folks off the street and into permanent housing. 

Assembly Bill 101, passed in conjunction with the 2019–20 State Budget, allows for the development of a shelter, or “Low Barrier Navigation Center,” as a “use by right” per local zoning ordinances, specifically in mixed-use and nonresidential zones permitting multifamily use. In other words, developers and other stakeholders may plan for a shelter without having to run the gamut of administrative hoops that often ground projects before they begin. In essence, this means no more planning commission hearings, no more conditional use permits, and far less uncertainty for prospective shelter operators. In these respects, Assembly Bill 101 does much to clear the way for new shelter developments. 

As made clear by official numbers, new shelter developments are what Tulare County desperately needs. According to the 2019 Point in Time Count report released by the Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance, the Kings/Tulare region has the fourth highest rate of unsheltered homelessness in the United States when compared to similar regions. In fact, the local rate exceeds the San Francisco region, an area commonly used to illustrate the pinnacle of unsheltered homelessness. 

Despite its promising potential, Assembly Bill 101 is not the panacea to the local homeless crisis. To be eligible for “use by right,” a shelter must be “low barrier,” which means operators are prohibited from requiring preconditions for entry. This does not mean shelters will become a safe haven for illicit activity; low barrier shelters have operated with great success across the country by utilizing a behavior-based model, including prohibition of drug use onsite. However, this does mean common barriers to entry will no longer keep folks from accessing shelter. Additionally, this law does not require that local governments provide shelter for every individual who requests or needs it. While local groups, including the County Task Force on Homelessness, Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance, and local cities, work toward a coordinated response to local homelessness, there is simply a shortage of dedicated resources when compared to the local need. 

Obviously, no one piece of legislation will solve the homeless crisis. At a bare minimum, adequate resources, as well as political and community support, must be present for any sustainable progress. But if Assembly Bill 101 is used correctly and streamlines the creation of shelters—an often critical first step toward housing folks—it is a step in the right direction for our whole community.  

Charles “Chaz” Felix is the homelessness initiative program coordinator at Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency.

Machael Smith is executive director of Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance.

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