Ending homelessness … one person at a time

Shortfall threatens successful city/county venture

Bill Schield’s life has completely turned around since a year-old city/county initiative took him off the street, put him into permanent housing and provided him with support services. Funding of those services is threatened, however.

Bill Schield’s life has completely turned around since a year-old city/county initiative took him off the street, put him into permanent housing and provided him with support services. Funding of those services is threatened, however.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

For Bill Schield, it’s the small pleasures that mean the most: having a place to build his model airplane (a SlowPoke Sport 40), setting up his own aquarium (“I want freshwater tropical, maybe some eels … no goldfish”), watching The Price Is Right in the morning, having a bed to lie in when his back gets to aching, as it often does.

Schield is one of 171 chronically homeless individuals to be housed and provided with case-management and treatment services through a joint Sacramento city/county Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. The plan, which just completed year one, stems from the Ending Chronic Homeless Initiative that set a goal of housing and providing supportive services to 1,600 chronically homeless people by 2017.

Sacramento County officials are confident they can reach the initiative’s goals when it comes to the number of chronically homeless people served and housing units acquired. But they confide to SN&R that they are worried about continued funding for treatment and case-management services people taken off the streets desperately require to remain in permanent housing.

Initiative backers are about $150,000 short of what they’ll need to provide case management to clients through 2009, acknowledged Tim Brown, newly hired director of the initiative.

“The case management is a big gap moving forward,” Brown said. “It will take collaboration on the part of the entire community.”

By collaboration, Brown means money—private money to augment city, county and federal case-management dollars that just aren’t there. Brown said longer-term estimates were still being calculated but could range in the neighborhood of $1.5 million to $2 million annually when all 1,600 people are housed.

Think of case managers as the first line of defense—or offense, whichever is needed—for the formerly homeless person coming off the street, re-entering society. Sometimes called service coordinators, case managers help individuals obtain housing, an income of some kind and links to medical, psychiatric, educational, vocational and drug- and alcohol-treatment services.

As Sacramento Self-Help Housing’s John Foley, one of the initiative’s early partners, explained, the chronically homeless coming off the street need “someone to sit down with them regularly, check in with them and see how they’re doing.” But, as he acknowledged, “There isn’t a lot of money for that now.

“There’s no point in constructing housing for people coming right off the street like this if there’s not going to be any case-management services for them,” Foley continued.

To ensure case-management services continue, Brown must engage in a public-education campaign to raise both awareness and dollars—to make believers out of ordinary Sacramentans for whom the homeless problem, especially in the downtown area, is particularly vexing. And Brown should know. In his former life, he spent six-and-a-half years as executive director for Loaves and Fishes, a successful, if sometimes controversial, homeless-services compound downtown.

“We need to bring people into the process—the business community is already on board—and educate them as to what the Ten Year Plan is and why it makes sense to support it,” Brown said. “So, yes, we’re believers. And it’s the mantra nationally: Let’s put an end to long-term homelessness. We want to wipe that out.”

Added Foley, whose program expects to house 105 chronically homeless people by year’s end, “We’re just one small part of the picture, obviously. But I think it’s a dividing line in America—if you can invite someone over to your house, into your room. Those things are terribly rewarding. Just knowing that lives are just so much better because they have a place to stay is a pretty big contribution to the community.”

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a “chronically homeless” person as a single person with a disability who has been homeless for a year or more, or who has been homeless four or more times in the last three years. A 2007 homeless count and countywide survey estimated that at least 1,275 chronically homeless individuals are sleeping on the streets or in temporary housing on any given night in Sacramento County. National studies estimate that 30 to 40 percent of chronically homeless individuals have mental illnesses.

Sacramento is one of 325 communities nationally to embark on 10-year plans, and cities such as Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Boston have already achieved notable results when it comes to reducing their chronically homeless populations. According to HUD, these communities contributed to a nationwide reduction of 11.5 percent in the number of chronically homeless people living on the streets from 2005 to 2006.

“We’re not saying we’re going to eradicate all homelessness,” Brown says. “We’re really focused on the disabled homeless. Those are the folks who use the majority of the services. It’s a disgrace that we have these very disabled people living on our streets year after year, and we can’t do anything about it. We can end homelessness for those who cycle in and out of hospitals and who are disabled.”

Sacramento must come up with 1,400 additional permanent-supportive-housing (PSH) units to meet its goal of 1,600 in 10 years. Such housing must be affordable to extremely low-income people, occupied by people with disabilities and augmented with treatment and case-management services.

Using the nationally acclaimed “housing first” model, people are taken in directly from the street and put into PSH units without being required to first address any alcohol use, drug use or emotional issues. Giving people stability first, it is argued, allows them to follow through and avail themselves of services that would better their lives—and save taxpayers money.

Based on reductions in the number of public emergency-room visits, psychiatric-hospital stays and incarcerations in cities like Portland, it is estimated that every chronically homeless person housed saves taxpayers roughly $16,000 in public-services costs. Sacramento officials have yet to run the numbers, but they estimate the initiative has saved between $1.5 million and $2 million in its first year.

Schield’s success as one of the first 69 chronically homeless people served by the initiative was evident six months into the 10-year plan, when he was first introduced to News & Review readers (“Homeless is where the heart is,” SN&R News, September 20, 2007). That success is inextricably linked to the supportive-housing model that relies heavily on case-management services.

Since being off the streets, the 58-year-old has completed a drug- and alcohol-treatment program, attained 14 months of sobriety, a room of his own and a new stability in his life he never thought possible two-and-a-half years ago when he was sleeping under bridges and along the American River.

Today, Schield proudly shows off his modest room in a bright, clean Victorian downtown that he shares with five other men. There is a garden, tended to by the off-site owner, a pleasant back patio, large kitchen and living areas. The men all share in the housekeeping chores, but Schield has taken on extra duties, like painting the inside of the house, despite back problems that limit how many hours he can work daily.

Saddled with a lifelong learning disability—Schield entered the housing without knowing how to read or write—he recently completed his first reading course through the Sacramento Public Library’s literacy program. He faithfully goes to his 12-step meetings and to the mental-health clinic for support groups around his depression. He enjoys spending time with his niece.

“This program is giving me back my life,” Schield said. “I have too much to lose to turn back now.”