Solving the homelessness problem, with housing

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Laura Blackmore worked minimum-wage jobs for most of her life. Her last job as a deli worker didn’t pay much, but she earned enough to provide a modest living for herself and her son, now a career Navy man. But when a series of health conditions worsened, she could no longer work.

At 40, Blackmore found herself homeless. She spent the next decade living in her car, in homeless shelters and, at times, had nowhere else to sleep but outside. She recalls the nights she spent on a bench in Doyle Park in Santa Rosa.

Then her luck turned.

In 2010, after she had been homeless for nearly a decade, a modest, one-bedroom apartment opened up in southwest Santa Rosa, one of the coveted housing slots created to help homeless people get off the streets.

“I was sleeping at the shelter, and someone asked me if I wanted to live someplace,” said Blackmore, now 55. “I couldn’t believe it. I had been looking for some kind of housing for years.”

Blackmore was in the right place at the right time, when the lead federal agency overseeing nationwide homelessness initiatives shifted its primary focus to a model known as Housing First. With the shift came millions of dollars a year for cities and counties throughout the nation, designated for programs that get people safe, secure housing before tackling root causes of homelessness such as substance abuse or mental health problems. Experts in the field now consider it the best way to eradicate homelessness.

The approach represents a radical shift from U.S. policy that previously focused on treating health complications and social problems while housing the homeless in shelters and transitional accommodations. Since 2001, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has granted money for market-rate housing subsidies to local governments as part of Housing First, a model developed after 40 years of research and efforts to address the rise of homelessness nationwide.

“What we’ve found, and what the research has shown, is that the one thing making a difference is to emphasize permanent housing solutions,” said Ed Cabrera, a California public affairs manager for HUD. “It’s the most important health intervention for vulnerable populations, and it works. Around 90 percent of people stay housed.”

Sonoma County homeless advocates have long agreed that the approach is the best way to help the homeless, but county officials did not fully adopt the model until late last year.

“That was the first time that local entities went on record in support of Housing First,” said Jenny Helbraun Abramson, who coordinates the county’s homeless policies.

Finding funding

The problem so far has been scraping together enough funding to provide local “permanent supportive housing,” the cornerstone of Housing First, as well as finding the units. This year, however, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors allocated nearly $1 million to local nonprofits to serve the chronically homeless, and federal dollars divvied out to local nonprofits that house the most vulnerable populations have increased slightly each year. The county receives about $20 million annually to fund homeless housing and services, roughly $13 million dedicated to permanent supportive housing.

Sonoma County’s supply of permanent supportive housing units has increased four-fold over the past decade, with 1,192 beds today, but many more people remain on the streets. The 2015 homeless count, conducted one night in January, found 2,000 people living outdoors, compared with 3,300 people in 2013. The people who remain are most likely the hardest to reach.

“They’ve spent most of their lives outside, so become enculturated to being homeless,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities. “Until we find housing for those people, they won’t be able to start addressing their underlying symptoms — or causes — of homelessness.”

There are steep challenges in getting people off the streets and into housing, but local politicians, health officials and homeless advocates say the local effort is worth it. They contend that housing is the best form of health intervention and saves taxpayers millions of dollars per year.

“For people we care for, with severe and persistent mental illness, who have led very hard, traumatic lives, the best form of care is a roof over their heads,” said Tom Bieri, executive director of Community Support Network, which operates four sites in Sonoma County. “There’s this Judeo-Christian work ethic that says, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and if you’re not able to do that, there’s this stigma, this shame. It’s not talked about, but you can feel it.

“It turns out, though, there’s a cost to being judgmental, and we see that in jails, in the emergency rooms and in some psychiatric and detox facilities.”

For Laura Blackmore and thousands of others like her in Sonoma County, navigating complicated social safety net programs can seem out of reach. Living day to day is hard enough.

Overlooking a community garden from her front porch one recent day, Blackmore recalled her previous life. Osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes severe musculoskeletal pain, caused her to take time off work. It became harder for her to make ends meet, so she took in friends to help with the bills. That arrangement soured in 2004 after an infection sent her to the hospital for 18 days. When she returned to her Roseland apartment, she found that the friends had been doing drugs and intimidating nearby residents. She also found an eviction notice posted on her front door.

“Things got out of control,” Blackmore said, “and it was my fault for letting things get out of control, so I didn’t fight it.”

With no savings and pain that prevented her from working, she spent the next 10 years living where she could afford.

Sleep in Doyle Park

She moved into her car until it was repossessed, then spent years in and out of homeless shelters. During the day, she visited The Living Room, a drop-in center for homeless women in Santa Rosa.

“I’d sleep in Doyle Park sometimes,” Blackmore said. “But I didn’t like it there. There were a lot of scumbags there.

“I went to the emergency room all the time. Once I was there five times in a few months. I didn’t have any other way; I’d broke my hip, and I didn’t know what to do.”

Now, things are different. She gets routine medical care at Sutter Regional Hospital and has a primary care doctor. Until her case manager enrolled her for SSI disability benefits and taught her how to use Medi-Cal, California’s low income health program, she relied solely on the emergency room, the most expensive form of care.

“This helped get her life back on track,” said Sheri Bright, Blackmore’s case manager at her 16-bed residence on Stony Point Road, called Stony Point Commons. “She’s safe, and she’s working on budgeting, nutrition and the basics of health care, like keeping her medical appointments.”

Cost-savings for local housing providers like Community Support Network amount to thousands of dollars a year, Bieri said. National studies report average daily costs of $6,000 to treat the chronically homeless, many of whom are mentally ill, suffer multiple health complications and are physically disabled.

Bieri said his nonprofit agency pays $16 a day for housing at Stony Point Commons. According to a 2014 report by the Community Development Commission, which administers Sonoma County’s homelessness programs, it costs slightly more for the average client — $31 a day for permanent supportive housing and homeless support services, $117 a day for detox, $340 a day for jail bookings and $4,500 for an average hospital emergency room visit.

“It costs more than 100 times as much to put someone in jail or take care of them in the emergency room as it does to house them,” Abramson said. “And they’re usually there for things they can’t help but do, sleep or urinate outside.”

Bieri highlights those costs when arguing in favor of the county’s radical shift toward a more robust Housing First policy that ties government-subsidized housing with mental health care and other supportive services.

“Society is going to absorb this cost one way or the other, so our thinking is, why not save money and be compassionate at the same time?” he said.

The compassion is not lost on Blackmore, who says getting into Stony Point Commons saved her life.

“My mind can calm down now because I know this is home,” she said. “I have my pride back again, and I don’t have to worry that some of the terrible stuff I saw will happen to me. I know my things are safe. I’m safe.”

The 16-room residence on Stony Point Road is located off the main road. Its sprawling half-acre campus, with butter yellow cabins that wind around landscaped courtyards, looks more like a country ranch than government housing. Unlike the single-room-occupancy Tenderloin hotels primarily used to house San Francisco’s homeless population or Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Sonoma County’s housing units are scattered throughout the suburbs.

But as Sonoma County officials and nonprofit service providers have learned, finding the housing is not easy. A limited number of permanent supportive housing units exist, and despite a 40 percent drop in the number of people who sleep outside in Sonoma County, demand far outstrips supply.

Matters have been complicated locally by skyrocketing rents and a 1 percent vacancy rate, byproducts of the Bay Area’s post-Recession recovery. When landlords can raise their rents on the open market, they have fewer incentives to accept federal rental subsidies that are capped at the government’s market rate. Building new affordable and low-income housing also has its challenges.

“It takes three to five years to put an affordable housing package together,” Abramson said.

Murder sparks fear

A fatal Santa Rosa stabbing last month in a supportive housing unit complicates matters further, county officials said. A homeless man is suspected of killing another man living in a home for formerly homeless people, an incident that Abramson describes as “the victimization of a tenant.”

“Recently a lot of fear has been generated by the murder (and) sometimes has been turned into an argument not to allow such a project in one’s neighborhood,” she said. “In general, people are very supportive of housing homeless people but become very negative when it comes to specific projects.”

Officials with Catholic Charities, one of the county’s largest homeless services providers, said the homicide has caused some landlords to back out.

“People are afraid,” said Holmes, “but that person didn’t live there.”

Meanwhile, the nonprofit is aggressively recruiting landlords to sign up as federal housing officials ramp up local subsidies to help the homeless into housing.

“They’re pushing this housing, and the money is there,” Abramson said. “We’re seeing the problem diminish, but we have a lot of work to do. We still have thousands of people at risk of dying on the streets.”

Blackmore remembers every detail about the day she was selected and credits her luck to staying sober and following the rules.

Even when she was on the streets, she said, she did everything she could to “not look homeless.”

While rocking on her front porch, which overlooks the garden she maintains, Blackmore said, “I’d get cleaned up, put on a nice skirt, and I’d go to the park and just read a book. I wanted so badly to look like everyone else.

“One of the things I did was go buy a big bag of candy and live off that for a week. I don’t have a sweet tooth, but I liked Tootsie Roll pops because, when you’re hungry, it comes in handy just to have something to stick in your mouth. It’s something you have to go through to understand.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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