Saying how badly you feel for all those poor homeless people is easy when no one is asking you to do much about it. It gets harder when the bill arrives.
We’re beginning to see what it costs to truly do something about homelessness – an issue bedeviling us and virtually every community in California. Doing something meaningful isn’t cheap.
Tuesday morning, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors will be asked to deepen their commitment to Focus on Prevention – the program that tries to attack homelessness and impoverishment at its core. Oddly, that doesn’t mean allocating more money.
Three years ago, when county CEO Stan Risen and community leaders developed the outlines for Focus on Prevention, the board authorized spending up to $1 million a year. That request won’t change. What will change is the number of county employees dedicated to the program, rising from two to five. One of those will be a “champion” of both the program and solving the problem.
If the board’s resolve remains strong – and we hope it does – supervisors will continue their $1 million commitment and dedicate those four staff members to the effort.
As the goals and infrastructure of Focus on Prevention have been developed over the past three years, only about $300,000 of the county’s annual $1 million commitment was spent each year. The rest went back to the general fund.
Now, as solutions are becoming more clear, so has the need to “put more resources against” the problem, in the words of one stewardship council member.
As Stanislaus County’s population has grown the past three years, the homeless population has grown with it. Last year, the single-day Point-in-Time survey found 1,434 homeless people living among us; this year it was 1,661.
Part of the increase might be due to a greater outpouring of concern. Two years ago, there were roughly 105 volunteers conducting the survey; this year, there were 187. With that many more people counting, there were certain to be more people counted.
Some say that three years is plenty of time to solve any problem. But there is no problem as unforgiving and intractable as homelessness, as those on the front lines know.
Brad Hawn, a former Modesto city councilman, helped start Modesto Neighborhoods, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to helping the homeless. Hawn speaks of getting to know some of the homeless; of striking deals with them to help keep the Graceada Park area clean while making their lives easier. He considers some his “neighbors” – just without houses. He’s even formed sort of a book club with one, sharing novels.
“What makes me most proud is that it’s not people saying, ‘You need to do fix this.’ Now, it’s ‘We’ve got to fix this.’”
Part of the solution will be leveraging community funds – from the county, most of the area’s cities and from individuals and organizations such as Kaiser-Permanente and E.&J. Gallo – to get help bring in more state and federal grants.
The new Community System of Care, headed by United Way President Francine DiCiano, will carry a large part of that responsibility.
Attacking the roots of a problem as intractable as homelessness – which affects children, out-of-work adults, the mentally ill, former foster kids, those with substance abuse problems, those fleeing abuse and many others – offers few overnight successes. There aren’t any silver bullets. But there are glimmers of hope.
Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll confirms that even though Modesto’s population has grown, certain types of crime most commonly associated with homelessness, are falling.
Part of that is due, he says, to a citywide focus on such problems. His “crime view” meetings involved city departments and the neighborhood associations – strengthened by Hawn’s Neighborhoods, Inc.
The chief hesitates to put much emphasis in year-to-year stats, but auto theft is down 21 percent, larceny down 18 percent and residential burglary down 25 percent. Perhaps only a tiny portion of the improvement can be attributed to Focus on Prevention, but we believe it has helped.
It’s worth putting greater resources against the problem to see if we can make even greater strides.
What will success look like?
Supervisor Terry Withrow tells of meeting people living beneath Modesto’s Seventh Street bridge. “It won’t happen overnight,” he said, “but we’re going to keep others from ending up under that bridge.”
The “hardest part,” said Hawn, “is to keep going.”
We’re counting on the county supervisors to keep us going in the right direction.