Marin grand jury urges more funding for homeless

POSTED: 05/21/18

Author: Richard Halstead

Publication: Marin Independent Journal

A new Marin grand jury report endorses the new “housing first” approach to addressing homelessness that local municipal and nonprofit agencies are taking and recommends that the county provide the funding necessary for success.

“The leaders of the homeless services organizations have come up with a detailed business plan to bring chronic homelessness to ‘functional zero’ in the next four years,” the report states.

“Functional zero” would be reached if the number of people experiencing homelessness in Marin fell below the average number of homeless people being connected with permanent housing each month.

To achieve this aim, the grand jury recommends that the county provide capital funding for up to 400 units of additional housing for the chronically homeless, as well as the funding necessary for Homeward Bound of Marin’s Mill Street shelter to provide round-the-clock case managers to assist the homeless with their search for permanent housing.

It also recommends that the county create additional emergency shelter capacity to compensate for the end of the Rotating Emergency Shelter Team’s (REST) winter shelter program. It suggests that the county create a local housing voucher program to supplement federal housing vouchers. And it recommends that Marin and its 11 cities and towns seek developers to create housing for the homeless within their jurisdictions.

“They’ve done a good job of highlighting the importance of utilizing the ‘housing first’ approach,” said San Rafael Councilwoman Kate Colin, who serves on Marin’s Homeless Policy Steering Committee. “I was pleased to see they recognize that focusing on the chronically homeless in Marin County and providing them with permanent supportive housing is the way to go.”

The grand jury report recognizes the many possible causes of homelessness: “families temporarily displaced by loss of employment, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental problems, substance abusers, teens trying to escape an intolerable home situation, or individuals suffering debilitating mental illness.”

The report recounts how past attempts to house the chronically homeless required them to meet certain requirements, such as sobriety, before being sheltered.

The reports states that as a result people with substance abuse problems were unable to solve their problems on the street and remained addicted and homeless.

“It is now recognized that ‘housing first’ is the most effective way to help these people,” the report states. “They must have a roof over their heads before they can be treated for their health care and substance issues.”

The report notes that in March 2017, Bergen County, New Jersey, became the first county in the country to end chronic homelessness after pursuing a “housing first” approach and issuing $11 million in county bonds to provide the needed funding.

Marin County has already committed to spending $10 million over the next four years, which will be matched by $10 million in federal funds, to institute a “whole person care” program for the chronically homeless. The program provides a case manager to coordinate all of the services a person may be receiving.

Since the county kicked off its new “housing first” approach in October, 32 chronically homeless people have been housed.

“That is about 10 percent of our chronically homeless population,” said Grant Colfax, county health and human services director. “We estimate that results in societal savings of about $832,000.”

The grand jury states that data from communities across the nation show that the public costs of homelessness — emergency room visits, interactions with law enforcement, incarceration, and regular access to social supports and homeless services — are often significantly higher than the cost of providing individuals with permanent housing and supportive services.

One of the grand jury’s chief findings, however, is that the “housing first” approach is dependent on the availability of housing.

“Working together, the nonprofit organizations and the county have shown that housing can be expanded by purchasing houses and building landlord partnerships,” the grand jury writes.

For example, it notes that St. Vincent de Paul Society has purchased three homes that are now housing chronically homeless people. Marin Housing Authority has brought 80 new landlords into the fold who will accept Section 8 vouchers. And Homeward Bound is planning to build increased shelter space in its Mill Street property in San Rafael for clients entering the housing-first system.

Nevertheless, the grand jury writes, “at least 400 units for the chronically homeless must be added to the existing housing stock to achieve functional zero homelessness. This can be accomplished by new construction as well as repurposing existing housing, motels, churches/convents, and office/retail.”

The grand jury also recommends that Marin County create additional emergency shelter capacity to replace the services lost due to the ending of the REST program.

“While progress has been made in providing permanent supportive housing, resources for emergency shelter are clearly inadequate,” the grand jury wrote.

Supervisor Katie Rice, who also serves on the Homeless Policy Steering Committee, said, “These are great recommendations; it’s just that for the county of Marin to step up and do it all out of our own coffer is impossible.”

Colin said she was surprised that the grand jury didn’t mention the Community Homeless Fund as a possible source of funding. In 2015, all 11 of Marin’s municipalities made a three-year pledge to provide an aggregate amount of $180,000 annually to help support REST.

Colin said even though REST has ended, “Right now all the cities and towns are reviewing their budgets and discussing continued participation in that fund for another three years.”

Colin said over the last 18 months the Community Homeless Fund money has been used to help fund San Rafael’s Downtown Streets Team mobile shower program.

Mary Kay Sweeney, executive director of Homeward Bound of Marin, and Paul Fordham, the organization’s deputy director, responded to the grand jury’s report in an email. Homeward Bound operates all of Marin’s permanent homeless shelters.

Sweeney and Fordham wrote that the county will need a number of community partners to achieve the goal of reducing chronic homelessness to “functional zero.”

“Nonprofit housing developers, the business community, foundations, state and federal resources, and other partners are key to creating these units,” the email read. “Bond measures and sales tax revenues have been utilized by other counties to address the ongoing need to build more affordable housing. It is time for Marin to engage in these strategies as well.”

The email added, however, that there is a “diminished need for winter shelters or an expanded number of shelter beds.”

Christine Paquette, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin County, said the county is already working on a plan for housing the homeless during extreme weather events now that REST has ended. St. Vincent de Paul Society managed and operated the REST program with the help of local religious institutions.

“It’s really important for people to understand that people who are homeless statistically don’t die from weather problems,” Paquette said. “They actually die from the many years that they’re living on the streets and not getting access to preventative medical care.”

“We feel it is very important that our work is all about getting permanent supportive housing for those people,” Paquette said. “That is what is going to save their lives.”

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