Journey to end homelessness

San Jose
– This is how homeless advocates want to tackle Santa Clara
County’s homeless problem: Give housing to people who don’t have
it. Don’t make them get clean and sober. Don’t make them get a job.
Don’t make them get mental health treatment. Just give them a place
to live, then offer them support serv
ices, and see how things work out. Now, all advocates have to do
is figure out how to pay for it.
San Jose – This is how homeless advocates want to tackle Santa Clara County’s homeless problem: Give housing to people who don’t have it. Don’t make them get clean and sober. Don’t make them get a job. Don’t make them get mental health treatment. Just give them a place to live, then offer them support services, and see how things work out. Now, all advocates have to do is figure out how to pay for it.

“I think that is the way to go,” said Margaret Gregg, the county’s homeless concerns coordinator. “The problem is that there’s not much money held in the purse strings.”

The county is just now taking the first steps of an ambitious journey to end chronic homelessness. Earlier this month county and city officials and homeless service providers convened the Santa Clara County Task Force to End Homelessness in 10 Years. It is a goal inherited from President Bush, who has reprised the Interagency Council on Homelessness and shifted the emphasis from emergency care and services to a finding a permanent solution to the country’s homeless problem.

South County is part of the venture. EHC LifeBuilders, formerly the Emergency Housing Consortium, received a HUD grant this week to build about 10 housing-first structures around the county for single adults. Bob Dolci, a director with EHC, said three of those units will be in South County.

“This is a model we definitely want to move forward with,” he said. “The rest of the nation is going forward with it and we want to be in tune with that.”

The plan is to increase funding now – Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disbursed $1.4 billion in targeted homeless grants, with $9.4 million coming to Santa Clara County – and lessen the government’s role in the future. Philip Mangano, executive director of the Interagency, talks about eradicating homelessness in business-model terms.

“Housing-first changes the equation of homelessness,” Mangano said this week. “No longer are we locked into a model where we have outreach first, a shelter second, transitional housing third, then maybe permanent housing. It’s what the consumer is asking for. There is no service that can be delivered better on the streets or in a shelter than it can in a home.”

And it’s an approach that has more and more appeal to homeless advocates.

“What the county needs to do is get homeless people off the streets and housed,” Gregg said. “How we do that is up to us, but the philosophy of the housing first model in other cities is working better than anything we’ve tried before.”

Housing-first is attractive, advocates say, because it provides stability that helps people deal with the hallmarks of the chronically homeless – addictions, mental health problems and unemployment – as proven by successful housing-first programs in New York, San Francisco and Contra Costa County.

“Housing-first appears to be one of the few, if not only, programs most effective at dealing with the chronic homeless, who are not inclined to go into a system that includes a lot of rules and regulations,” said Poncho Guevara, director of communication at South County Housing in Gilroy, which provides transitional housing and other homeless services. “It’s a hard thing for agencies to sell because investors from both the public and private sectors expect very targeted outcomes.”

But the less stringent requirements for homeless in a housing-first program make it a riskier undertaking for developers and landlords, who are concerned that permanent housing will preclude the use of shelters and transitional housing.

Chris Block, the executive director of Charities Housing, a non-profit developer in San Jose, said that shelters should continue to play an important role in what’s called the continuum of housing. He said that even landlords experienced in renting to the homeless want to see some track record of success before leasing an apartment to a chronic homeless person.

“I have concerns about housing-first giving us a reason to not have shelters,” Block said. “My concern as a developer is that it’s very difficult to get people out of housing once they’re in permanent housing. I need to be able to deny people based on their problems in daily living, based on their behavior. If someone is in a shelter for a couple of months and has gotten some assistance and some training, and had a positive experience, I can be more flexible.”

Advocates of the housing-first method say it works because tenants are not left to their own devices. Support staff is constantly available to monitor people’s behavior and forestall any incidents that might lead to eviction.

EHC currently supports a housing-first program for 40 families in San Jose. Dolci said the true measure of its success is that once families get housing, they stay in their housing.

“There’s been no turnover to speak of,” he said.

Palo Alto has had a housing-first program for three years. Kathy Espinoza-Howard, the city’s director of human services, said the program has been “very successful.” Of the 10 people in permanent housing, one is clean, sober and employed, another is looking for work, and the other eight are actively trying to better themselves.

But the program illustrates the challenges of paying for housing-first models. Tenants who receive social security must pay 30 percent of their income in rent. Other tenants need not pay any rent, though they are assisted in getting on some form of general assistance. Landlords are paid through rent vouchers issued by local government.

“What kind of money will be available and who’s going to manage it are questions that have to be answered,” Gregg said. “Housing-first requires on-going rental subsidies, and it’s implicit that we’ll have to give up funding somewhere else.”

Funding to combat homelessness comes from a variety of federal and state agencies. All of it is tied to specific programs run by various private and public entities within the county. Of the $9.4 million given the county this week, $8.5 million is earmarked for renewing existing programs and services. With only so much money to go around, moving from emergency and transitional models to a housing-first model is made more complicated by the rigidity of the funding system.

“The grant program comes with certain rules about how you can spend money,” said Karen Gruneisen, an attorney with HomeBase, a nonprofit law center in San Francisco, who is running the county’s task force. “It’s important for communities to assess what they need and to ensure their services meet those needs. The problem is that there’s not enough money and communities get stuck prioritizing among real needs.”

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