Report: Housing is pathway to curbing homeless

Consulting firm presents findings of “Pathway Home” report to address homelessness in Tulare County to Visalia, Tulare and Porterville city councils as well as Board of Supervisors

By Reggie Ellis

TULARE COUNTY – As the beginning of 2020 has come and gone, Tulare County can look back on the last decade with a sense of accomplishment. Violent crime is at a 20-year low, unemployment is at historic lows, and housing prices remain some of the lowest in the state while voter participation, wages and construction are on the rise. The one issue that a booming economy in the country’s most productive state can’t solve is how to keep people from living on the streets.

Homelessness remains the top issue facing urban centers across California and it affects Tulare County residents more per capita than almost anywhere else in the state. In an effort to find a pathway forward, the Tulare County Task Force on Homelessness approved a $77,000 contract with Home Base, a nationally known Bay Area firm with nearly three decades of experience developing plans to address homelessness. Home Base CEO Nikka Rapkin personally presented her report, “Pathway Home: Responding to Homelessness in Tulare County,” last month to the Visalia, Tulare and Porterville city councils as well as the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. 

Overall, the report was well received and universally adopted, but things started off contentious as the first elected officials to hear the report were unimpressed and labeled the report generic. 

At the Dec. 16 Visalia City Council meeting, Councilmember Phil Cox described the report as a “cut and paste document” that could be used in any county or city in California if you took Tulare County out of the title. 

Councilmember Brian Poochigian labeled the report “cookie cutter” and said the plan reiterated what the council already knew, that the city needed a low-barrier shelter, that more housing is needed and that the county and cities should work together to address the issues. “I don’t see anything dynamic in this report.”

Vice mayor Steve Nelsen called the report “very general” saying it lacked specifics on what the next steps are. Nelsen championed the work that Visalia had already done to try and curb homelessness and said many of the most public faces of the issue are people who do refuse the many avenues of help the city has provided. Nelsen said  the report didn’t address what he saw as the biggest issue in Tulare County. “The biggest breakdown you have is a breakdown in the family.”

Current task force member Caity Meader took exception to the councilmembers’ characterization of the report. “You may think it’s cookie cutter but we need everyone here to have an active role in how we take these generic goals forward. It can be done, and I truly hope that it is because of all of you and not in spite of you.”

As CEO of Family Services of Tulare County – a group that supports victims of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking – Meader said she employs a hundred hard working citizens and works with hundreds of other people in the county to advocate for basic needs of many of the county’s most at-risk populations and was begging the council to avoid the negative rhetoric for an issue that will require cooperation, collaboration and coordination. 

“We have spent years quietly serving our homeless brothers and sisters waiting for local government to come to the table. The swell of public opinion has forced the issue across California, but whatever the reason we are glad you are here,” Meader said. “But when you are this late to dinner, it is not productive for you to show up indignant and self-righteous tearing down those of us who have humbly prepared a place for you.”

Meader also addressed the need to hire an outside consultant, something the council had chastised the task force for when councilmembers made comments that Bay Area firms would not be well suited to identify solutions in rural areas.

“I will speak only to my own motivation for voting to approve a consultant to come in and tell us, what, you all made very clear that you already knew, and that is because there is a failure to listen to those of us locally who are doing this work who know many of these ideas but can’t seem to get policymakers with resources to the table. So, we are glad you are here,” Meader said.

Vice mayor Nelsen said his comments were not directed at the current efforts by those in the community but rather the inaction and stagnation in moving forward with a plan. 

“We are done talking generalities,” Nelsen said. “Give us more specifics and let us move forward.”

Mayor Bob Link and Councilmember Greg Collins said they found the report informational and thorough but understand the frustration voiced by councilmembers and members of the community. Assistant city manager Leslie Caviglia, who has been coordinating the city’s multi-layered response to homelessness, said the report was meant to be somewhat generic to allow each jurisdiction to tailor the overarching goals to their resources. 

Councilmember Collins pointed out the discussion of the plan had already fostered some new ideas, such as creating a triage center, where professionals and clinicians could evaluate those living on the street for medical, mental health, employment, substance abuse, and housing needs. Once they are entered into a database shared by all of the jurisdictions and entities on the task force, those providing those services could follow up with them with referrals, shelter, jobs and other income opportunities.

Nelsen motioned to approve the report and Collins seconded with the understanding that the task force come back with recommendations from the plan specific to Visalia. The council unanimously voted to adopt the plan. 

FIVE GOALS

Rapkin countered claims the report was not specific to Tulare County by outlining the research her firm conducted to develop the report. 

She and her staff sat down with over 40 people for face-to-face interviews, conducted a survey that was taken by over 600 community members, held a half-day community summit with over 75 stakeholder participants and held several focus groups and topical committee meetings. This was in addition to digesting the great work done by the Tulare-Kings Homeless Alliance in their annual Point In Time Survey to quantify the demographics of the homeless population, income and poverty data, census data and state and local school district data. They also took the time to understand all of the “impressive” programs already in place in Tulare County. 

“There is a lot of excellent work being done in Tulare County,” Rapkin said. “You’ve increased some of key interventions we would have recommended increasing already. It’s nice to know you aren’t going to have to build from scratch but there is a lack of community-wide consensus on what work needs to be done.”

Despite claims of being generic, the report not only outlines, but prioritizes five overriding goals each with specific ideas to make them happen. 

1. Increase access to permanent housing: The report unequivocally states that “Permanent housing – and the supports needed to retain and maintain it – is the solution to homelessness.” Permanent Supportive Housing and Rapid Rehousing will provide hundreds more security and vital support to achieve stability. To increase these types of housing, the report recommends establishing a 5-year countywide Housing Development Pipeline, consider repurposing vacant motels and buildings, repurpose vacant homes into bridge housing for adults exiting homelessness, heavily recruit landlords to rent subsidized rooms and expand the county’s landlord mitigation fund. 

2. Increase access to services to support exits from homelessness: Establish a low barrier shelter in Visalia, Tulare and Porterville, develop respite beds for discharging and medically fragile individuals, establish a safe parking lot for individuals and families living in their cars, create a mobile outreach van for medical, mental health and housing navigation services for those outside of the main cities, do more outreach of homeless encampments on the outskirts of the cities, place trained to provide services as shelters, transit centers, libraries and work development locations.

3. Expand services for subpopulations with special needs: Help older adults who are homeless access Social Security Income and find subsidized senior housing, hold focus groups to help young people with gaps in the system, expand the Dream Center in Visalia to Tulare and Porterville.

4. Preventing homelessness for those at risk: Create an assessment tool to find out what households are at risk of homelessness, map those households and identify points of contact to “intercept” them before they become homeless, increase landlord mitigation services, expand the Environmental Cleanup (ECO) project in Visalia, train and provide access to clinicians who can provide disability documentation, develop more programs to provide jobs for those with disabilities. 

5. Strengthening public engagement and community partnerships: Create a steering committee of the countywide task force to develop and implement a year-round communication strategy, hold events where community members have a chance to interact and connect with people experiencing homelessness, coordinate a volunteer campaign to fund and host sites for mobile units providing resources to the homeless. 

EFFECTIVE SERVICES

Charles “Chaz” Felix, coordinator for the task force, opened the Board of Supervisors’ Dec. 17 discussion of the report by praising Rapkin’s firm and the report. He said the task force scoured the Valley looking for more local consultants. When they didn’t find any, he said they turned to Home Base, which worked with the Tulare-Kings Homeless Alliance to develop their 10-year plan to address homelessness a decade ago.

“I’m incredibly impressed with this plan custom made to fit our needs and not just a one-size-fits all, cookie cutter approach,” Felix said. 

Supervisor Dennis Townsend asked Rapkin how to boil down the report into quantifiable goals, such as 

How many low barrier shelters? Which agency should take the lead on funding, what should the county spend money on first? 

Rapkin said the report does provide recommendations such as focusing on increasing supportive housing by having a pipeline of projects ready to go, because it is the most effective way to keep people off the streets and prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place. She said 71% of Tulare County’s homeless live outdoors which tends to create the symptoms of homeless, such as medical conditions, disabilities, mental health diagnoses and developing addictions to cope with those. 

“We don’t believe cookie cutter plans serve communities,” Rapkin said. “Resources are scarce and need to be targeted on most effective interventions.”

Chair Kuyler Crocker asked why two-thirds of people struggling with homelessness weren’t already receiving public benefits such as social security income for the elderly and disabled, assistance programs for military veterans and services for youth. 

Rapkin said there are plenty of governmental agencies, nonprofits and medical service providers connecting people to public benefits but only if they can make an appointment, wait in a long line, or fill out a form. 

“The first step is supporting people to engage in conversations with providers or create a structure where they can access those kind of resources,” Rapkin said.

Supervisor Eddie Valero asked a more targeting question about reaching those living on the streets in unincorporated areas, which comprise most of his district in the northern part of the county with the exception of Dinuba. More specifically, Valero was asking about youth.

“Is there going to be a focus on our homeless youth population, project or program?,” Valero asked.

Rapkin said the homeless population living in unincorporated communities are often those who have been homeless the longest and are the most disconnected from services. She said one of the goals identified in the report is to create mobile, multidisciplinary teams that can meet people on the street in any community to evaluate what their needs are.

As for youth, the report suggests converting vacant three- and four-bedroom homes into transitional housing shared among homeless youth, who tend to crave more social interaction than their elderly counterparts. She also pointed to the Tulare County Office of Education’s new Dream Center, where foster and homeless youth can seek services such as interviewing for a job, receiving help applying for Medi-Cal, obtaining a tutor, securing housing or getting basic food and hygiene supplies. The center, located at 1730 W. Walnut Ave., Suite B, also houses social workers with expertise in the Independent Living Program (ILP), family connections, and other foster youth benefits.

“Youth tend to fall through cracks in a way the adult population doesn’t,” she said.

Supervisor Amy Shuklian, chair of the task force and former Visalia councilmember, said she was disappointed in the Visalia City Council’s reaction to the report. She said the council misunderstood the issue of affordable housing when it comes to low-income residents in a high poverty county. 

Rapkin said she understood the frustration as homelessness is a complex and perplexing issue because it has to be solved on a case by case basis. She commended the task force for being unique among many of the jurisdictions she has worked with and essential to avoid wasting resources on duplicate services. 

“The challenge is that everyone be aligned,” she said. “There are not enough resources to implement solutions that may not be effective and not enough for disparate groups to reinvent the wheel. Having the conversations at the same table is crucial.”

Vice chair Pete Vander Poel was the only supervisor on the board when it directed staff to begin forming a countywide task force in 2016. Vander Poel said the task force has created a clearinghouse for the different approaches to homelessness and said he hopes the task force’s members will view the report as a rallying cry for a united approach.

“Together we can work and really make a dent in this homeless crisis,” Vander Poel said. “We have to have unique approaches to how to do it in Tulare County.”

The report was also important because having a 10-year plan is a requirement for two of the three types of funding provided by the state’s No Place Like Home Program. Signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2016, the program dedicates funds to assist counties in developing permanent supportive housing for people who are homeless, at risk of being homeless or living with severe mental illness. Unlike transitional housing, supportive housing provides wrap-around services to at risk residents. Hiring a consultant made Tulare County eligible to receive $52 million in supportive housing funding that does not require a local match. 

After receiving the report from Home Base, the supervisors unanimously approved $15 million in No Place Like Home funding to build an 80-unit project in Porterville that will include 14 units to shelter homeless. 

“The report is a good first step in trying to identify options to move forward,” Crocker said.

MYTH BUSTERS

While the report may seem like a typical consultant report at face value, Home Base did provide information to dispel myths about homelessness in Tulare County. 

Myth No. 1: People become homeless because they are crazy or addicted to drugs. The primary causes of homelessness locally are unemployment and eviction. More than a third of all homeless in the county reported these as the main reasons they are homeless. And the problem is getting worse. In 2015, 1 in 6 people experiencing homelessness indicated housing-related issues as their reason for homelessness (evictions, no affordable housing, foreclosure and/or substandard housing) compared with nearly 1 in 4 less than 5 years later. Only 13% of people experiencing homelessness became homeless because of mental health issues or substance use disorder. It is true that a quarter of those experiencing homelessness are diagnosed with mental illness but most of that is a result of homelessness and not the reason they became homeless.

Myth No. 2: Homeless people are coming to Tulare County because there are services here. Those struggling from homelessness are not castoffs from nearby population centers in Fresno or Bakersfield nor are they housing casualties of the Bay Area and Southern California. Ninety percent of the homeless here had their last stable residence in Tulare County. 

Myth No. 3: The homeless problem isn’t as bad here as others places. The problem here in Tulare County is relatively worse than the rest of the state. There are 4% more of those considered chronically homeless, meaning they have been without shelter for a year or at least four separate times in the past three years, than the rest of the state and 3% more people are being unsheltered than the rest of the state. Seven in 10 homeless are living outdoors, in an encampment, in a vehicle or an abandoned building.

Myth No. 4: There shouldn’t be more homeless people here because we live in the most affordable area of California. While it is true that Tulare County is among the counties with the most affordable home prices, home prices are still increasing faster than wages. According to the report, home prices and rents have increased 9% since 2015 but ages have only increased by 2% over the same period of time. A quarter of Tulare County households live below the poverty line and spend 40% of their income on housing.

Myth No. 5: Most of the homeless are adults with mental health or substance abuse issues. Tulare County schools report that over 3,000 school age children did not have a stable home in 2017-18. 

ANNUAL GOALS

The myth-busting was extremely helpful for the Tulare City Council, which received the same report a few hours after the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 17. Vice Mayor Dennis Mederos seemed shocked that only 13% of those experiencing homelessness identified mental health or substance abuse as the reason for their situation. 

“People living on the street acquired [issues with mental health] after they became homeless or wasn’t the key cause of why they became homeless,” Rapkin said. “There are a lot of people who are able to retain housing that have those issues. It’s such a complex issue and hard to parse out the particular reason why someone became homeless.”

Councilmember Carlton Jones said he shared the stereotype despite the fact that he himself was considered homeless as a young man. He said when he was going to school he was going from house to house, sleeping on friends’ couches or on the floor because he could not afford housing of his own.

“I was broke, going to school and had no place to stay,” Jones shared. “I would live with people and try to carry my weight but I was a homeless kid and I never did a drug or drank alcohol.”

Mayor Jose Sigala asked the consultants for a process for the different jurisdictions to work out their differences within the plan. 

Rapkin said the existence of the task force already provided the cities and county with means to address their differences but recommended that each city come up with their own annual goals to fit their plans within those developed by the task force. 

Before motioning to adopt the report, Sigala announced a list of initiatives he would like to see Tulare implement in line with the consultant’s report. He said he wanted to create a Social Service Commission to coordinate all of the cities internal efforts to address homelessness, consider adopting an ordinance making it more difficult to evict low income people, many of whom are at risk of becoming homeless, designate parking lots where those living in vehicles can sleep safely at night, and implementing the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team modeled by the Visalia Police Department. The unit is comprised of officers who exclusively respond to calls regarding homeless individuals. HOPE Team officers build rapport with those living on the streets, provide them with bottled water if they look dehydrated, refer them, or even drive them, to services and pair them with county mental health workers to meet those struggling with mental issues wherever they are in the community. 

Sigala motions was seconded by Jones and approved on a 5-0 vote.

Later that night, the Tulare City Council even went so far as to declare a housing shelter crisis. The designation provides the city with some flexibility in interpreting and applying state standards for building, planning and fire codes when it comes to sheltering the homeless makes the city eligible to receive grant funding directly from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program funds (HEAP).

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