Jeff Jardine

As Stanislaus looks at long-term homeless solutions, Merced County wants to start with housing

A trio of folks occupied a bench in front of the Gallo Center for the Arts a week or so ago. While that unusually balmy November afternoon made it a short-sleeves kind of day, cold weather loomed in the long-range forecast and arrived this past week.

Pretty much everything they own, packed in suitcases, bags and backpacks, rested within reach on the ground. Yes, they are homeless, they told me. And yes, it will start raining soon. And yes, while they are staying at the Salvation Army’s Haig and Isabel Berberian Shelter and Transitional Living Center, they know it isn’t a long-term solution. What, then, is keeping and can keep them from becoming chronically homeless?

Stanislaus County officials are more than 18 months into a long-term approach through Focus on Prevention, aimed at addressing the root causes of homelessness from economics to substance abuse to mental illness, and reaching families with children and who either are homeless or on the verge of homelessness. If it works, say a decade or two from now, it will be considered revolutionary. The short-term approach involves consolidating agencies and services and funding and then sending teams out in the community to direct the homeless to services. Companion efforts have added some, but not a lot, of beds.

Despite the best efforts of the Salvation Army center, the Modesto Gospel Mission and other nonprofits providing temporary shelter, it won’t be enough to help many off the streets right now or any time soon.

Forty miles to the south, Steve Carrigan wants to make a more immediate impact. While Los Banos city manager, he began going out on the homeless counts and talked with scores of them to understand their needs and what it would take to get them off the streets. Now, as Merced’s city manager, he and others decided they needed to take a “housing first” approach that has been hugely successful in other parts of the country. Get a roof over their heads and the homeless will be better positioned to get the services they need, from drug rehab to medical care to job training. The concept, introduced in New York in the 1980s, is known to reduce the number of chronically homeless people. Utah embraced it, dropping its number of chronically homeless by 91 percent.

Carrigan said he likes what the Focus on Prevention folks want to do, but he said he can’t wait that long for results in Merced.

“Our short-term plan is to see what we can do now to support the people on the street,” Carrigan said. Last month, he announced that the city of Merced, working with the Merced County Continuum of Care, had secured $1.4 million in state and local grants to fight homelessness. Some of it will pay the salaries of two workers who will go out to meet with the homeless and assess their needs. Two others will concentrate on finding housing for the homeless and getting them into it. His plans don’t stop there.

They’ve already found a 5-acre parcel where they plan to build a 100- to 125-unit apartment complex for permanent supportive housing, near Merced County’s mental health facility.

The project could cost as much as $20 million, and Carrigan said he has $7 million available, some of which would come from federal funds. But that was before Donald Trump won the presidency, and now, with Medicare and Social Security in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s cross hairs, such money might not be available.

“I don’t think anyone in (Washington) D.C. knows,” Carrigan said.

However, Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed AB 1618, known as the “No Place Like Home” initiative. It dedicates $2 billion to building permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people with mental illnesses, plus $67 million for short-term housing and programs that will assist families.

“All I need is a small piece of a $2 billion pie,” Carrigan said.

Some of that money will no doubt trickle down to Stanislaus County as well. In the short term, Modesto recently authorized $250,000 in federal funds for a proposed one-stop center for the homeless, where they can access services including mental health treatment and seek permanent housing. If the City Council approves the proposal next month, the center should open in early 2017.

City and county officials also want to open a so-called low-barrier shelter, and both would be adjacent to the Berberian center at Ninth and D streets. Plans call for 20 converted sheds, each with two beds, which will accept couples and pets. The Salvation Army also has done its part by opening its once cold-weather 100-bed emergency shelter at the Berberian center year-round. Meanwhile, the Focus on Prevention group next month will begin training neighborhood volunteers on how to engage with the homeless.

Even so, the permanent supportive housing model is the one some local homeless folks say would help them most.

“It would turn things around for me,” said Crystal Shugar, a 39-year-old Modesto woman who has been on the streets for about a month. She overheard my conversation with the others in front of the Gallo Center as she passed by, and stopped to join in. “You need to list an address when you’re looking for work. You have to be able to bathe, and be clean – especially if you are going to work in food service.”

Which, in many cases, is the most readily available job.

The other three – Justyn, 24, homeless for about four months; Teajay, a woman who is also 24; and 39-year-old Daniel Moreno – said they stick together because life on the streets can be pretty dangerous. Permanent housing would ease that risk.

“I was staying under the bridge at (La Loma) park and I overheard a woman being raped,” Moreno said. “There is drug use there also, anywhere from methamphetamine to pot was smoked there, and a lot of violence there. That’s what convinced me to hook back up with my old roommates and go into a shelter, the Berberian.”

“There is safety in numbers,” said Justyn.

Especially in the numbers of ex-homeless, which is why the “housing first” concept needs a closer look here.