All hands on deck
Two events focus on importance of cooperation to combat homelessness in Butte County
“Look around the room,” Brad Montgomery said. The executive director of the Torres Community Shelter in Chico was speaking to an audience of about 200 gathered at the Southside Oroville Community Center on Friday (April 15) for Butte County’s first-ever Homeless Symposium.
Montgomery then asked the attendees—which included Butte County supervisors, council members from the county’s five municipalities, and members of the public—to imagine a crowd three to four times larger to get a sense of the roughly 700 guests his shelter has served in the last year. He then asked them to double that mental image to envision the size of the local homeless population, counted at 1,127 during the most recent point-in-time survey conducted by the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care (CoC) in January 2015.
“There isn’t going to be one magic bullet, one intervention model, one approach, one single solution or one single agency that can handle that kind of volume and still move forward,” he said.
Montgomery’s overarching message was that homelessness in Butte County is a complex issue requiring multiple approaches, as well as interagency and community cooperation, to combat.
Just as collaboration was one of the focuses of the symposium, it is the driving force for an event the CoC is hosting next week, Project Homeless Connect. The event will bring dozens of service providers dedicated to helping the homeless together in one spot, the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, next Wednesday, April 27.
This is the second such event to be held in Butte County. The first was in 2012 and helped more than 400 people meet immediate needs—including new clothing, showers, food and haircuts—and connect with long-term services such as Behavioral Health, job training and signing up for public assistance.
“It is a really monumental event,” said event coordinator Sherisse Allen. “We’re preparing for more than 600 guests to connect with 65 services offered by about 100 agencies.”
One of those agencies, which Allen called the day’s “big-ticket winner,” is the Department of Motor Vehicles. She explained that those experiencing homelessness are often unable to take advantage of existing services or advance their situations because they don’t have legal identification.
“At Project Homeless Connect, they can potentially get an ID card, then walk a few feet away and get a cellphone, then go to the next booth and connect to 211, which connects them with agencies and social services throughout the county,” she said.
Allen said having all of the services in one place is essential, as homeless individuals often don’t know what is available. Even if they do, lack of transportation or other resources can make following through difficult. She said the CoC is looking into ways to hold similar events at least once a year.
At last week’s symposium, all of the speakers outlined their agencies’ efforts to address homelessness and related issues they’ve encountered. Participants included the directors of the county’s Behavioral Health, Housing Authority and Employment and Social Services departments; Sheriff Korey Honea and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien; representatives from Oroville Hospital and Enloe Medical Center, as well as from Stairways Programming, 6th Street Center for Youth and other organizations.
Among the topics discussed were funding changes, as federal and state monies have been moved from supporting the “housing readiness” model practiced at the Esplanade House and Torres Shelter—in which clients are required to maintain sobriety or conform with other requirements to use temporary or transitional housing—to a “housing first” model embraced by Stairways Programming, which places priority on housing those suffering from addiction or mental illness first, then providing services later.
“In actuality, there’s some difference [between housing first and housing readiness], but not as much as one might think, because nobody’s saying support services aren’t important or that they shouldn’t be a priority,” said Thomas Tenorio, who serves as CEO of the Community Action Agency of Butte County (which oversees the Esplanade House) and chair of the CoC. “I’m here to tell you there’s room for both models … there’s certainly not one that fits all.”
Sheriff Honea emphasized the fact that homelessness itself is not a crime, and Chico PD’s O’Brien focused on the importance of balancing compassion and accountability. He held up his department’s Target Team, a small group of officers that attempts to address “quality of life” crimes through outreach rather than punitive measures, as a compassion component. He also praised the Chico City Council’s passage of a pair of controversial ordinances—the sit/lie law and the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property initiative—for giving police the power to hold homeless individuals accountable for antisocial behavior.
Ed Mayer, executive director of the Butte County Housing Authority, emphasized the link between poverty and homelessness and gave some grim statistics regarding the lack of affordable housing in Butte County. He said 50 percent of Chico and 70 percent of Oroville residents pay too high of a percentage of their income on rent and utilities.
“Homelessness and low-income households are really a breath away from each other,” he said. “For those that are housed with minimum wages and minimal incomes, all it takes is a broken-down car, a health issue or a loss of income, and all of a sudden those households are homeless.”
Even those with housing vouchers from his department struggle to find shelter in Chico, where the vacancy rate is less than 2 percent, Mayer said.
Several speakers noted the importance of county and city officials getting involved. Michael Madieros, executive director of Stairways Programming, said it was great to see county supervisors and city council members taking notes.
Mayer echoed the sentiment, saying, “One of the components that’s been missing in the last several years has been interest and participation from the political level … communities with the most success are those who’ve approached [homelessness] from the top down.”