Summit: Solution for homeless is more homes

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Experts from Southern California, New Mexico and rural counties say housing first model is least expensive, best practice to end homelessness

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the solution to addressing people who are homeless is more homes. That was the consensus among researchers, analysts, and religious and government leaders who spoke at the first ever Tulare County Homeless Summit Oct. 25 at the Wyndham hotel in Visalia.

Where they differ is on how to find, fund and fetch more housing for their communities.

The summit’s speakers came from as far away as Albuquerque, N.M. where they found that housing a homeless person is a nearly a third of the cost of keeping them homeless. To combat homelessness, the city started a program that did three simple things: 1. Create a clearinghouse for donations; 2. Provide jobs to people living on the streets; 3. Streamline the process to place them in temporary housing and jobs. They called it “There’s A Better Way” and started by putting up signs around the city that read “If you need help with food or shelter or would like to donate call 311.” After receiving thousands of calls, they started a website where residents could funnel their donations. By bringing all of the donations into one place and leveraging public, private and non-profit resources, the City of Albuquerque was able to leverage $10 in assistance for every dollar donated.

Through a partnership with their local mission, St. Martin’s HopeWorks, the city wrapped a van with program decals and donated it to the mission who supplied a driver. Rhiannon Samuel, director of communications for Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, said the van drives around the city and looks for homeless people to pick up and take to work. Once a full crew is picked up, the city dispatches the van to an area to clean up. Lunch is provided to the workers and city staff arrive on site to help them fill out housing applications while they eat.

“These people go from chronically homeless to getting a job on their own,” said the driver, William Cole.

Since it was piloted two years ago, Samuel said the program has reduced unsheltered homelessness by 80%, reduced chronic homelessness by 40% and effectively ended military veterans homelessness. “There’s A Better Way” has now been replicated in a dozen other cities throughout the United States.

The program is similar to what is being done with the City of Visalia’s Environmental Cleanup Opportunities (ECO) program. Launched in July, the program pays homeless people to clean up trash along the roadways, riverways and byways within the city while simultaneously working to find them temporary or transitional housing.

A Lack of Shelter
The problem in Tulare County is finding enough housing to make a dent in the number of people living without shelter.  Michael Smith, executive director of the Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance, said 666 people in Tulare County are homeless with 374 sleeping on the streets and 210 being considered chronically homeless, or those that are unable to navigate services to help them get off the streets, according to the Point In Time survey, an annual census of homeless people, conducted in January. About two-thirds of those people are in Visalia which is higher than both the national and state average.

“Seven of those were children living on the streets,” Smith said. “They may not seem like a large number but it is hard to accept that even one child is living on our streets.”

Smith said Tulare County only has 252 permanent beds to keep people off the streets and there has not been a net gain in beds or shelters since 2012. She said offering rentals vouchers is ineffective because local landlords have collectively only accepted 20 vouchers yet 659 people have been processed by the system and are awaiting housing.

“Talk to people that own property and let them know how important this is,” Smith said.

Think Small … Houses
Two other speakers from Yuba County, an area even more rural than Tulare County, shared their innovative solution to the housing problem. After a career in law enforcement, Yuba County Administrator Robert Bendorf sat down with county leaders of more than 25 organizations to discuss cleaning up homeless encampments throughout the city of Marysville and unincorporated areas. After getting all of the stakeholder agencies on the same page, Bendorf said the idea was to create a supervised camp that would provide housing, assistance and services to those living on the streets, river banks, and on private property.

Instead of a tent city, Bendorf said the county purchased 20 Tuff Sheds and worked with Habitat for Humanity to convert them into emergency housing for the homeless by adding insulation, beds and a patch of artificial turf as a front yard. As emergency housing, Bendorf said the county was able to avoid the normal costs associated with permanent housing by limiting the number of days a person can live there to 21, with options to extend that to a maximum of 84 days throughout the complex.

“We wanted something more permanent, an actual roof over their head, so we decided to do the sheds,” Bendorf said. “It’s a little unconventional and it might not work for you but it is one of many solutions to consider.”

They built the sheds into a small community on county-owned property next to a rescue mission on 14th Street and dubbed the project “14 Forward.” The rescue mission provided meals, shower facilities and bathrooms next door while the County provided on-site case management. While living at 14 Forward, Bendorf said county staff works with individuals to get a photo ID through the DMV, obtain a Social Security Card, fill out applications for transitional housing and employment training. The county also provides transportation to and from rental walk throughs, job interviews and doctors appointments.

“We decided to stop talking  about it and start doing something about it,” Bendorf said. “The longer you talk about it the worse the problem gets.”

Chayla Galicia, Homeless Project Manager for Yuba County Health and Human Services Agency, said what made 14 Forward unique was that it increased the amount of available housing, provided on-site services, allowed residents to have pets and provided services throughout the day while still providing the residents with some privacy.

“Some of the barriers to shelters are that they couldn’t bring pets and that they had strict rules,” Galicia said.

Just a year after building the facility, 14 Forward has housed 141 people, 44 of whom have obtained permanent housing and 27 of which have found jobs.

No Vacancies
Building tiny houses for people to live in temporarily might work in rural counties like Yuba, but not in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles County. Margarita Lares, director of the assisted housing divison for the Housing Authority for the County of Los Angeles, said she works for the fifth largest housing authority in the United States and oversees a program that at any given time is assisting approximately 25,400 families through a partnership with approximately 13,000 property owners.

The landlords are part of LA County’s Homeless Incentive Program which pays landlords a vacant holding fee, covers rental application fees, move-in assistance, damage claims and pays for monthly rent through the term of the lease if the tenant suddenly leaves. The program is funded through a local sales tax measure that provides $355 million in funding annually.

Lares suggested that Tulare County work on a joint powers agreement with surrounding county housing authorities to create a regional agency that could move people across jurisdictional boundaries where more, affordable housing might be available. She also suggested removing rental history, credit history and criminal background checks from the screening process for homeless people seeking to access housing programs.

“The criminal background check is a significant barrier,” Lares said. “We went from a five year history to a one year history and then no history and there has been no additional risk or problems by doing away with background checks.”

Making A Choice
But not everyone on the two panels was sure of the “housing first” model of addressing homelessness. Ryan Stillwater, director of development at the Visalia Rescue Mission (VRM), said his organization provides 327 meals per day to homeless individuals and shelters nearly 900 men, women and children so far this year. Those numbers are a 62% increase from the previous year despite the shelter being available since 1981.

Throughout the U.S. Stillwater said experts estimate there are four times as many vacant homes than people living on the streets. In Visalia, there are an estimated 666 people living on the streets and more than 2,800 vacant homes, according to a 2014 study by the California Department of Finance.

Money isn’t the answer either, Stillwater said. He noted that the City of Los Angeles earmarks more than $176 million each year toward “combating the city’s growing homeless crisis,” a 76% increase over the previous budget yet the number of homeless continue to grow by at least 23%.

“We have a culture problem,” Stillwater said. “Counties spend millions on housing and we still have a problem. Not every homeless person is a victim. At some point it was a choice,” he said referring to those who are addicted, not seeking services, giving up on life or don’t want the responsibilities of life.

After watching people complete VRM’s Life Change Academy, a residential recovery program that offers no cost room and board and vocational training for those who follow the rules, Stillwater said the one thing everyone who has entered the long-term program has in common is that they hit rock bottom, the point where they are at their worst and want to change themselves. He shared a quote from 1899, more than a century ago, about the real problem with charitable giving without purposeful programming: “Well-meant interference, unaccompanied by personal knowledge of all circumstances, often does more harm than good and becomes a temptation rather than a help.”

Homes For The Needy
There was a time when Dr. Joe Colletti, executive director of the Hub for Urban Initiatives, would have agreed with Stillwell. As a former case manager in Southern California, Colletti said he used to look at homeless individuals with substance abuse problems as a waste of resources for those trying to get off the streets. He banned those individuals from transitional housing programs, watched them become chronically homeless and then die on the streets. Over time, Colletti said he realized that without housing, there was no hope of solving the underlying issues of homelessness.

“I look at this as a person of faith,” said Colletti, who is also an adjunct professor of urban studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. “Housing first is a lot like the grace of God – you don’t have to earn it and there are no preconditions.”

Colletti said just under 9,200 households in Visalia are at-risk of becoming homeless because they live in poverty and, statistics suggest that 10% (900 households) will lose their housing and live with family or friends and 100 households will become homeless by 2020 without cash assistance for rent and utilities.

He said about 62 people in Visalia are chronically homeless, meaning they can’t find housing because they are unable to navigate services due to disabilities, addiction or mental health issues. Another 131 people will become chronically homeless if they are unable to navigate services. Colletti said housing is the key in both instances.

“You need a housing first approach,” Colletti said.

Tulare County Supervisor Amy Shuklian, who opened the summit with introductions, closed the event with a condensed summary and a personal guarantee. The District 3 supervisor pointed out that, unlike Los Angeles County, Tulare County has plenty of funds designated for housing the homeless, but does not have the housing available. Part of the lack of housing is the underdevelopment of affordable units but more concerning, Shuklian said is the unwillingness of landlords to rent to people trying to get off the streets. Shuklian finished by saying that she owns a rental property in Visalia and once the current renters decide to move on, she will immediately make the home available for programs to assist the homeless.

“I have a renewed energy and motivation after today,” Shuklian said.

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