County celebrates first year of team to address homelessness

Multi-disciplinary team brings a cross section of Health and Human Services professionals to better serve Tulare County’s homeless population

TULARE COUNTY – Noah Whitaker doesn’t have to imagine what it’s like to be homeless to help those in need as program coordinator for Tulare County’s Homeless Initiatives. He was once homeless himself and at risk of being homeless for much of his childhood.

His parents divorced at a young age and his father took his own life when Whitaker was in high school, emotionally and financially crippling the wife and children he left behind. With just a high school diploma, Whitaker’s mother did the best she could to support them on her salary as a secretary for county government on the coast but they had to spend many nights living out of her car. The loss of their father had an even more traumatic effect on his brother, who struggled with gangs and drugs before living on the streets for many years.

“I have a lot of memories as a child riding in my mom’s car, searching valleys and the riverbanks looking for my brother,” Whitaker said. “So, it’s a very personal experience doing what I do now.”

Whitaker was able to find enough money through grants and work to eventually go to college, and even went on to graduate school. At one point in the semester, Whitaker said he ran out of money and told his professor he was dropping out of class to spend his last $100 to make his way to the homeless shelter. One of his classmates who worked in mental health overheard the conversation and told Whitaker how to apply for an extra help position with Kern County’s outreach teams serving the homeless. The team hired Whitaker and helped him turn his struggle into a lifelong passion.

“If it wasn’t for that opportunity, that team literally would have been serving me instead of me serving on the team,” Whitaker said.

After spending his first 10 years with Tulare County as head of the Suicide Prevention Task Force, Whitaker is now running the Health and Human Services Agency’s (HHSA) Homeless Multidisciplinary Team (MDT). The team is a cross section of HHSA professionals who deal with mental health, addiction, hunger, and disabilities who gather resources from across all branches to best utilize, coordinate and deliver services to the homeless population.

“I’ve seen in my personal life, the benefit that services can have, and what people can accomplish,” Whitaker said. “Getting to be a part of the solution is more rewarding than I could ever express.”

Born out of needs identified by the countywide task force on homelessness, the MDT was formed by HHSA in January 2021 to address the complex issue of homeliness in Tulare County. MDT is a unique approach to connecting the homeless with the services they need by bringing those services under one roof, Whitaker told the Tulare County Board of Supervisors during a presentation at its Dec. 14 meeting.

“I have not seen this type of model anywhere else and definitely with the strength our local HHSA brings,” Whitaker said. “We have both mental health, public health and human services all in one agency and our MDT is able to work across the county in other communities.”

Whitaker is the coordinating director of the team, meaning he helps the team connect with its 23 partner agencies, cities and organizations, looks into state grant opportunities to fund the team and oversees the team from a macro view. Working closely beneath Whitaker is unit manager Sharon Lopez, who works with the day-to-day activities of the team, making sure people are documenting the needs of clients, making sure support is provided where needed and managing the team at the micro level. They’re both supported by administrative specialists Barbara Osborn and Christina Jones.

“Over the last year we have built this team,” Whitaker said. “Collaboration, coordination and communication and compassion. Those are the core of this team.”

Working with the clients directly are two alcohol and drug specialists, Corey Jones and Richard Perez, social worker Theresa Broadnax, licensed clinical social worker Angelica Lopez, self sufficiency coordinator Jaime Arias, and health education assistant Patricia Cortez. Lopez will be handling mental health assessments and then connect clients with alcohol and other drug treatment and behavioral health care for those with mental health diagnoses. Arias is with TulareWorks, a life skills and job training program, and determines for which assistance programs clients are eligible and finds the necessary identification and documentation for those who do not have it. Broadnax specializes in services for elderly clients.

“I’ve been blessed to have excellent team members and volunteers and community members,” Whitaker said. “It’s literally the reason I think I’m in public service. It’s the people.”

More specifically, MDT is working on projects to help the homeless throughout the county. In Porterville, the team is working with the Porterville Police Department to encampment canvassing and outreach along the Tule River.

In Tulare, MDT is partnering with the city, homeless advocates Salt + Light and Adventist Health Tulare to canvass a major homeless encampment at Centennial Park and Rotary Park and are in the process of applying for funding to reclaim public spaces by relocating the homeless there to more permanent housing. If awarded the Encampment Resolution Funding, Whitaker said the money would be used in three phases. The first would bring mobile shower units to the encampment to reduce the public health hazard and then connect them with services. The second phase would be to relocate them to suitable housing and the third phase would turn the project over to the city to restore the park.

In Visalia, MDT is already meeting with those using the warming center, located at the Evangel Assembly of God on Walnut Avenue at Ben Maddox Way this winter, to enter them into the city’s database of unsheltered residents, assess them for services and find out which programs they are eligible for. Whitaker said the MDT will also provide these services at the city’s future low-barrier homeless shelter on Dinuba Boulevard across from the Riverway Sports Park. The MDT is also operating out of the new Connections center at the Tulare County Probation headquarters in Visalia. The center houses 13 community-based organizations offering services for mental health, education, vocational training, drug and alcohol recovery and life skills.

Current Board Chair Amy Shuklian praised the steps the county took to form the countywide task force on homelessness, which led to the formation of the MDT. Shuklian, who served as the first chair of the task force, said it was the first time all of the local governments, advocacy groups, nonprofits, and industry experts came together in an attempt to get on the same page.

“Look at this list of partners,” Shuklian said. “There was a time when all people were doing different things and everyone working in silos. And now, because of the taskforce, and now because of MDT, things are really happening.”

Shuklian credited Supervisor Pete Vander Poel with bringing the task force to fruition. Vander Poel pushed for the formation of the countywide task force on homelessness in 2016, and it was formed during his chairmanship of the board in 2017.

“There is no one silver bullet approach to solving homelessness,” Vander Poel told Whitaker. “It truly is a multi-disciplinary approach and seeing individuals you brought on the team and knowing your background and the agencies you are coordinating with gives me great confidence homelessness in Tulare County is headed in the right direction.”

The team’s greatest success stories are often the most challenging cases. And while Whitaker is not allowed to share information about clients, he did say it has become increasingly difficult to find housing for families living on the streets. Not that finding housing for the homeless is easy, but there are very few vacancies for two and three bedroom apartments.

“In the last two years I’ve seen multiple people, who started on a riverbank, an alley or some other place unfit for shelter, and tonight, they’ll sleep in a bed with a roof over their home,” Whitaker told the supervisors. “And that is the greatest measure of our success.”

Supervisor Larry Micari shared a story about a father who called him for help getting his daughter off the street. County staff referred Micari to the MDT who were able to connect with the girl and put her on a path to finding stable housing within two weeks of receiving the call. The father drove down to the county offices to personally thank them for their help.

“He was in tears with all the years he has been trying to help his daughter and within a couple of weeks you were able to achieve it to get them the housing they needed,” Micari said.

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