THE SOLUTION SHOULD BE SIMPLE. “If you put someone in housing, you have ended their homelessness experience,” Flacks says. But of course it isn’t that easy. “Then the task is, how can we help someone stay housed? How can we help them to improve their life? It is a crime that in a country as well-off as ours, anybody should have to face homelessness.”
Flacks hasn’t always focused on homelessness. He started his career in community development in California, building on experience as a Kennedy School student working with the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation. He saw the power of the ways in which business, workforce, and housing development interacted with skills creation and youth programs to strengthen entire communities. Flacks took those ideas back to California with him. For 20 years, he concentrated on workforce development and housing in San Diego and San Francisco.
Moving back to his hometown of Santa Barbara in 2015, however, Flacks found himself drawn to the issue of homelessness, which he knew was a significant problem. “It brings together a lot of different components of what I’ve been working on,” he says. “There’s obviously a poverty component. There’s a housing component, because the best way to end homelessness is to provide housing.” Flacks holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from San Diego State University, and he recognizes that there is often a mental health component to homelessness as well. “I have spent a significant amount of time doing mental health work directly with homeless people,” he says. “That training and experience serve me well in the policy arena.”
Over the past few years, Flacks has held positions in a number of organizations focused on homelessness, including serving as the executive director of the Central Coast Collaborative for Homelessness—an organization focused on minimizing the impacts of homelessness in Santa Barbara County—and as director of programs for People Assisting the Homeless (PATH)—a group serving cities in five regions throughout California.
Currently Flacks manages data products on the performance of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the largest homeless services provider in the country. The organization is sustained through various funding sources, the largest of which is Measure H, a Los Angeles County sales tax approved to fund homeless services and prevention. LAHSA has a staff of 600 people, including 300 community-outreach workers who connect people experiencing homelessness with housing services. Roughly 69,000 people in LA County sleep on the streets. “We have enough homeless people in LA on any given night to fill Dodger Stadium,” Flacks says.
Flacks also runs Flacks Seed Consulting, a firm that partners with funders, nonprofits, and governments tackling poverty and homelessness. In that work, he uses both his policy and his clinical knowledge. “One of my contracts is with the city of Goleta, which is a small city in Santa Barbara County,” he says, “and part of my role is to go out into the community and meet with homeless people and see how our programs are working.” He periodically goes on ride-alongs with police officers and visits encampments to talk to people experiencing homelessness. “It is nice to work at different levels,” he says, “to have the 30,000-foot view and also the direct one-to-one human interaction.”
Flacks recognizes the scale of the problem not just in LA or Santa Barbara but throughout California—a problem driven by a shortage of affordable housing. “We are suffering the pains of our own success as a state,” he says. “We love to brag about the size of our economy, but what we haven’t done is build enough housing and infrastructure to meet demand.”
He describes the housing problem as a strange market failure: “How could we possibly be literally millions of units short across all income levels?” A boom in single-family suburban development followed World War II, and the reaction to that development in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in denser cities. But, Flacks says, “what California didn’t do for the 21st century was to think about the next wave of community building. Now we are suffering the impacts at every economic level. There is not enough housing for people—from the very rich to the very poor.” One result, Flacks says, is “brain drain” and “youth drain”: Young people are leaving the state, unable to afford homes. Another result of this failed housing market? Homelessness.
Until the housing crisis is remedied in a meaningful way and with enough funding, Flacks believes, homelessness will continue to be a byproduct. The COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps surprisingly, brought a brief respite due to financial support from governments. “You had rental-assistance funds,” Flack says. “One of the concerns is that those funds are stopping. We are going to see homelessness ramp up again.”
For Flacks, solving “the stupid problem” requires not only financial support but also a well-constructed “pipeline out of homelessness”: outreach, shelters and interim housing, and, ultimately, permanent housing, made possible through rental assistance or the creation of housing units. Flacks cites Bakersfield as one California city that has succeeded in creating such a pipeline. The Housing Authority of Kern County, where Bakersfield is located, committed significant time and resources to the problem, resulting in both interim and permanent housing. Flacks is interested in researching small communities in New England that have demographics similar to those of the California cities he works with, but far less homelessness and more housing available for those who need it.
Despite the seriousness and complexity of the problem, Flacks feels a measure of optimism. He believes in the promise of community-based solutions and is heartened by the enthusiasm he sees from some local leaders.
“I really do look at this problem through the lens of community development,” he says. “Maybe we are waiting for a new generation of community leaders. How can we give them the economic tools to start pulling some of these levers to address homelessness?”
Chuck Flacks photographed at a hotel that will be converted to permanent housing in Goleta by Josh Edelman.