By Jennifer Junghans
Timothy Murphy is the CEO of Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange and Construction Industry Education Foundation. SRBX is a construction trade association that’s been around since 1901 with approximately 900 members in the Greater Sacramento region. With many of SRBX’s members involved in the conversation regarding homelessness, SRBX is looking at what it can do to see more affordable multifamily housing built.
The Construction Industry Education Foundation offers programs for high school students to get them interested in construction careers. For example, its Design Build Competition brings together 12 to 20 students that work together over a two-day period to build a 9’ x 12’ tiny home, which have then been donated to programs addressing homelessness.
“We think there could be a nexus between using construction education for students in high schools that could construct tiny homes that could be used in tiny home villages that provide temporary shelter for the unhoused,” Murphy says.
We recently spoke with Murphy who shared his perspective on solutions to address homelessness in our region.
In terms of efforts to leverage the resources of the entire industry to provide a solution to homelessness, including exploring opportunities to create low-cost temporary housing facilities that could be used to congregate the unhoused, providing shelter and on-site social services, there hasn’t been a lot of movement. Is that because there is no designated land that’s ideally suited for that?
I think that is the biggest problem. You do run into the challenges with NIMBY. People who say, “Yes, we definitely need to have this, but oh, can you have it over there [away] from where my house is?” When it comes down to it, there has to be lands that are used in order to address or to get past the NIMBY issue that might be on the outskirts of a community but close enough to where all the people who are providing the support services, [can easily] get to them. So you can’t locate it far out of an area.
There needs to be a certain amount of pain shared by the communities in having multiple locations all around the metro area. I know that the mayor’s approach was: We’re going to have eight different camps and there are eight council districts in the City of Sacramento. Each council district [could] identify where a camp should go, so it wasn’t all being placed in one area disproportionately.
How can you engage professionals in the building sector to be part of the solution?
The first thing they can do is to recognize they can be [part of the] solution. In order to solve the situation, we’re going to have to have the cooperation of the construction trades all across the board to build this. You’re going to have to figure out how to schedule the work to get the housing stuff done quickly because it is a priority. Second, I think there are probably opportunities to use those who are in apprenticeship programs or are newly entering the industry. These can be settings where they can get on-the-job training and help with their entry into doing the work. You’d have seasoned people working with them, so there could be a job development component.
Are there innovative private sector solutions that could have a measurable impact?
If there were more opportunities for nonprofit organizations to engage and find [ways] to use private funds. One of the challenges is if you’re using public dollars, the state code requires that that construction be done at the prevailing wage level, which means it’s at the highest wage for the different trades. …. I’m not saying there isn’t an appropriate area for that but if we need to do this for housing the homeless, we need to find the best return on the dollar. Private funds will provide that best return on the dollar, but it’s the public dollars that are out there that are going to be used. So there has to be a political decision to say: How do we find the way to build these homes so you’re getting the efficiency of the cost and tradespeople can also be fairly paid for doing the work?
Do we know what percentage of the unhoused population is due to economic reasons versus those living in camps who are experiencing drug addiction and mental health issues?
I don’t know what the overall numbers are, but it’s my impression in talking to folks that the vast majority are because of mental health or substance abuse issues. There aren’t a lot of people in the camps who are there because it’s a lifestyle they choose to live. I think it’s also the growing permissiveness of using drugs in the state, you know, legalization. As we get more permissive, I think that more people start experimenting and it can lead them down that path. And certainly not having a strong enough mental health safety net. … [The answer] has got to start with how do we find a way to triage those who are hurting, providing services for them before they get to this point where they are no longer able to function in society.
Is building homes for people experiencing homelessness the solution?
That’s been one of the thrusts of the arguments between providing programs that have housing as an element but also having to go through all the social services first in order to get the housing and then keep the housing to help get you back on your feet versus the housing first approach. It’s my personal opinion that housing first is not the right way to go. Obviously we’ve got the people here. They can build the homes, they can build the units, the tiny homes, the apartments, what have you. But we have found that the places get pretty well destroyed in a short period of time because of the issues that the tenants have who occupy those. … So you run into this challenge. You can build this housing and provide these resources, but if you’re going to have to continue to refurbish it and fix it to keep it in operable condition, that’s going to take resources away from building new units, which can house more people.
What do you see as the most promising solutions to address the homeless issue?
It has to be something that’s done with social services that go hand in hand. And there’s got to be incentives and consequences or repercussions if the program isn’t followed. Prior to my working here at the Builders Exchange I worked for Aerojet, the aerospace company in Sacramento. We were supporters of Saint John’s Program for women and children. I got to … really understand their programs and the participants in the program were held accountable every step of the way.
A lot of them had hit a point in their lives where they were at rock bottom. They were going to lose access to their children unless they got their act together. But Saint John’s provided all the counseling. They had resources for the kids. They had job training programs. They had programs for women to get their GEDs. They had all the alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous support programs. They had that all in one place and the women were held accountable. But what was also wonderful is that although everybody was focused on their own success, in that group environment, they were also invested in everybody else’s success. So I think programs like that, that provide the support, the treatment, the encouragement along with the housing have the greatest chance of success.
… Unless there’s an incentive or a repercussion, that behavior will not change. And as we’ve seen more about who is living on the street, because we see it everywhere these days, those are people who aren’t able to make those decisions for themselves to begin with. So again, what can be done to provide them with all of these resources, but also have some conditions where we can get them to recognize it’s in [their] best interest to do these things. I think the carrot and the stick is going to work a lot better in that case.
What do we need to do to get to that place?
That’s a question for the elected officials because those who embrace housing first, it’s a failure. … it will not work. It seems in the short run, yeah. We’ll build housing, we’ll give them a place to stay and they’ll want to eventually get the services to make themselves better. They’re not doing that. It’s time to own up and say, you’re not going to change that behavior. Compassion and generosity are definitely the key, but you have to have consequences, repercussions and punishment in order to keep them on that track.
Is there evidence that shows the wraparound services approach before housing is effective?
I read a book by Michelle Steeb, the former executive director of the Saint John’s Program, called “Answers Behind the Red Door: Battling the Homeless Epidemic.” She’s now working for a Texas think tank addressing homelessness policy. They have good information that shows for the clientele that Saint John’s had and other programs … featured in the book that you have a better solution set and fewer chances of relapsing back into the old lifestyle through programs like that. With housing first, there’s no incentive to make those changes.
What limitations might there be around a program or solution that offers wraparound services first?
Well, it’ll be costly because in addition to providing the housing, you have the medical care, the counseling care, the job training, all the things that go along with that. I don’t know how much money has been spent on housing first and trying to provide solutions to the homeless crisis, [but] we see where the numbers are going. If that money’s going to be spent, let’s spend it on something that has a better chance to succeed.
What else would you tell me about solving the homeless crisis?
Again, [as builders] we’re one aspect of the solution in how to get more housing, but there’s a whole lot of brick work that needs to be laid in front of it to get to that point. … If they are launching programs that have these wraparound services, it does take time to build the projects and to get them to the point where you’re able to hand the keys over to somebody to reside in them. It is a long-term planning process, but the longer that it takes our elected officials to figure out what the combination of solutions is, it’ll be that much longer to start the building and construction to get these units available and ready for the people who need them the most.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.