Homeless is where the heart is

Ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness is off to a good start

William Schield’s fortunes changed after a city/county plan to end chronic homelessness took him off the streets.

William Schield’s fortunes changed after a city/county plan to end chronic homelessness took him off the streets.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

William Schield has a quiet dignity about him as he speaks about the last two-and-a-half years spent homeless, sleeping along the American River, under bridges and in shelters. Saddled with a learning disability—the 58-year-old cannot read or write—a drug and alcohol addiction, and a mental-health diagnosis, Schield personifies the face of Sacramento’s chronically homeless population.

But Schield’s fortunes are changing. He is one of 195 people to be moved off the streets and into permanent supportive housing since January as part of the joint city/county effort to stamp out chronic homelessness. Since moving into a house he shares with four other men, Schield has completed a drug and alcohol treatment program and has amassed eight month’s sobriety. He is anxious to re-start his reading classes—something he dropped when he was homeless—and looks forward to getting a job as a maintenance worker.

“I’ve been trying to better myself,” said Schield, adding that having a home that can’t be taken away is the key to self-sufficiency.

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” he said of Sacramento Self Help Housing’s program, which is providing both housing and support services to its clients. “But you have to really want this, and I do. If you want a place to get yourself straightened out, they’ll give you a place to do it.”

The city/county “Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness,” which was adopted in September 2006, proposes to produce 1,500 new permanent housing units by 2017, accompanied by support services. Under the plan, a chronically homeless person is defined 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 past three years. Of the 195 people who have been assisted thus far, 69 fit the chronically homeless definition. Since implementing the plan in January 2007, local government is on track to build or lease 500 new units by 2010, putting it in sight of its 10-year goals.

Modeled after the successful Home Again initiative in Portland, Ore., Sacramento’s plan splits duties between the city and the county. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency acts as the lead arm in securing bricks-and-mortar financing for building new, or leasing existing, housing. The SHRA works with the county to secure support services for residents dealing with any number of disabilities, including mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction.

Sacramento started the plan with a $7.8 million nest egg, with $5 million generated from tax increment financing money through SHRA, and about $2.8 million in Mental Health Services Act dollars that provide the supportive services accompanying the housing. Federal funds for one-time start-up costs were not available, but officials are exploring additional funding sources.

“I think moving 195 people into housing is fantastic, and moving 69 chronically homeless off the streets is a strong start,” said Heather Lyons, director of Home Again and Portland’s homeless program.

“I think it’s comparable to our progress, although a little less,” Lyons continued, explaining that her county estimated 1,800 chronically homeless when Home Again began in January 2005. That’s out of a population of about 4,300 total homeless residents sleeping outside or in shelters in Portland and Multnomah County.

For Sacramento County, the numbers are lower, but comparable. A July 2007 street count here found 2,452 people sleeping on the streets or in shelters. From this data, officials estimate that more than 4,300 people experience homelessness over the course of a year.

Portland’s success has been extraordinary, surprising leaders there, Lyons said. In the program’s first year, it housed 660 chronically homeless people, up from its goal of 175.

“We were very fortunate to have strong providers and an infusion of federal dollars that helped us surpass what we had even hoped for,” Lyons said. “But if you have good staff, good providers and the political will, there’s no reason you can’t pull this off. And that’s what we’ve had the benefit of having here.”

The “housing first” model is straightforward: provide people permanent housing before requiring them to engage in social services that would help break the cycle of homelessness, such as drug and alcohol treatment, mental-health services, and links to employment.

National data shows that 10 percent of homeless people, the chronically homeless, use 50 percent of emergency resources. The same study found that a chronically homeless person with mental illness costs more than $40,000 a year to support in hospital visits, shelter stays and incarceration. In contrast, affordable, supportive housing has been obtained at a cost of $16,000 per year for a person with the same needs, Home Again’s Lyons reports, since implementing the plan in 2005.

Since then, officials have seen a 73 percent reduction in the number of jail stays and arrests, and a 42 percent decline in the number of hospitalizations reported by participants.

These are the same type of gains posted in Sacramento and elsewhere, where housing and wraparound services—the “whatever it takes model”—have been offered through Assembly Bill 2034 programs, which provide counties with flexible funding to support recovery and re-entry into the workforce for formerly homeless mentally ill adults. Sacramento currently receives $4.9 million in AB 2034 funds and supports 285 clients.

“I absolutely see [what happened in Portland] happening here,” said Diane Luther, director of Sacramento’s initiative and former point person for Portland’s Home Again plan.

“There’s no question in anyone’s mind that this is cost-effective for Sacramento,” Luther said. “We have a lot of people just cycling in and out of jail and emergency rooms. And because these folks are disabled—they have an addiction or a mental illness or are physically disabled—they just can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be able to compete in a speculative housing market. They’re just not going to get back in by themselves.”

On the bricks-and-mortar side of the plan, the city has 185 new units in the development pipeline, including an 80-unit, cottage-style apartment complex at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 47th Avenue. Grading has already begun on the site, and occupancy is slated by the summer or fall of 2008. The goal by 2012 is 280 new permanent supportive-housing units, with another 218 units of housing for chronically homeless individuals in the next three to five years, bringing the total number of units to about 700 at the half-way mark in the plan.

Additionally, the city has set a goal of constructing 200 new units of “prevention” housing—efficiency apartments for very, very low-income residents who, if not for these units, would be at risk of becoming homeless. Additionally, SHRA and developer A.F. Evans have entered into an agreement to rehabilitate 100 units of existing single-room occupancy units at the Hotel Berry at 7th and L streets, a $5 million project that includes a $60,000 per year agreement to contract with Transitional Living Community Support to provide support services.

To obtain this, the city entered into a financing deal to allow the developer to purchase the property from the city outright, with no debt. In exchange, the developer agreed to fund social services for the residents in the building.

“It’s about getting [residents] coordination to make sure they get the services in the community they’re entitled to, and make sure they don’t slip through the cracks into homelessness,” said Jim Hare, SHRA assistant director.

To Luther and other officials looking at those like Schield who’ve already been helped through the plan, continued funding of supportive housing is taxpayer money well-spent.

“It will be a constant process,” Luther said of some of the strategies she’s negotiating on behalf of the initiative. “It’s a 10-year plan for a reason. But we’ve got a really good start and we’ll just keep going.”

“This will help a lot of people,” added Schield, reflecting on his own situation. “I have a home. I’m getting my life back. I’m very grateful to be in here.”