The Long Way Home, Part 1
The homeless count and the 10-year plan to end homelessness
By Michael Sullivan 03/20/2014
They sit on the sidewalk with crudely made cardboard signs, asking for money, food, work, even beer. They pull shopping carts and push strollers filled with pieces of their lives and necessities for daily survival. They nap in parks and on benches. They congregate in public areas, just hanging out most days, some with their canine companions nearby, while the world around them is caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
They are the homeless of Ventura County, but what is seen and what can’t been seen, what is hidden away from our perception is the truth of each individual’s story. This year, the VCReporter will be exploring, in a three-part series, homelessness — the past, present and future — in Ventura County. This week, a look back.
Anthony Dunne, Rob Orth and Clyde Reynolds at River Haven in Ventura.
Dunne is a resident of River Haven. • Photo by: T Christian Gapen
Over the last several decades, there have only been a handful of brazen local residents who have felt not only sympathy but maybe even true empathy for those living on the streets. These few have been willing to put copious hours, days, weeks, even years into helping the homeless get what they need, including the ultimate goal, a home. Cathy Brudnicki was one such volunteer.
Brudnicki and several others worked together to help the homeless for many years. As her particular group became more organized, they decided to make it formal and in 1993 they created the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to the needs of the homeless and low-income residents. This all-volunteer organization was really the first of its kind beyond churches to form locally to provide such services. The coalition worked cooperatively to apply for U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds; its success in accessing these funds brought credibility to the group.
While earnest efforts were being made in addressing the homeless situation, the administration of President George W. Bush changed the rules of the game. In 2004, the administration required any municipality (cities, counties, etc.) that had received and would reapply for HUD funds to address not only the needs of low- and very-low-income residents, which had been the standard, but also to strategically focus on addressing the needs of the homeless. In order to receive HUD funds, municipalities were required to do an annual homeless count and create a 10-year strategy to end homelessness. The coalition had been counting persons in shelters for several years, but did not have staff or resources to conduct a street count. The city of Oxnard did carry out a street count in 2005 and that data was used to generate an initial estimate of homeless persons throughout Ventura County.
Over the next couple of years, county government, the coalition and seven cities joined forces; and in 2007, the first complete countywide count of homeless persons took place. Also in 2007, with funding from the county, the coalition created the 10-year strategy to end homelessness. The plan identified several key factors targeted to end homelessness. They included engaging the community, addressing specific and targeted housing needs of the homeless on a micro-level, funding various programs and services, and measuring performance outcomes. Clyde Reynolds, founder and executive director of Turning Point in Ventura, referred to this plan as “managing homelessness.”
“We look back on those days — we helped a lot of homeless people, but we were just managing their homelessness,” Reynolds said. In other words, the problem wasn’t being solved.
Back to the drawing board
Two years later, under President Barack Obama’s administration, Congress passed new legislation that required some fundamental changes to the strategy for municipalities nationwide. The rules of the game changed yet again. Brudnicki and the coalition’s board, which included Reynolds, had to switch gears, and rather quickly, in order to keep receiving HUD funds. Brudnicki remembers those years well.
“After the 10-year strategy was completed, the HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency and Rapid Transition to Housing) legislation was passed by Congress in 2009. The HEARTH Act changed funding for homeless programs. It placed emphasis on three areas: prevention, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. It also placed an emphasis on outcomes, Brudnicki said.
“In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness published the first-ever federal plan on ending homelessness, called ‘Opening Doors,’ ” Brudnicki continued. “That document placed a focus on three populations: veterans of military service, youth aged 18-24 and chronically homeless families. It set forth performance expectations and — most important — specified joint action by 19 federal agencies.
“Because the 10-year strategy was written before these two landmark documents were issued, the Ventura County plan to end homelessness needed to be updated to include current guidelines and best practices,” she said. “I got a grant from Amgen Foundation to cover the cost of an 18-month process to update the 10-year strategy. It took longer than 18 months, and I retired during the process, but the update was completed.”
In 2012, the update of the 10-year strategy, Recalibrating for Results: A Five-Year Evaluation and Update of the 2007-2017 County of Ventura 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, was completed. This time, the focus was housing first.
Susan Englund, board president of the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition, took over for Brudnicki in the revision of the 10-year strategy.
“I think what the 10-year strategy did was help us look at best practices in the community, challenged us to fund those strategies and come together to invest in those strategies,” she said. “Each community needs to work with what is best for them. It’s a tough job.”
She noted that each community has its own set of challenges in addressing the goal of getting the homeless into permanent housing. Some of the biggest issues in finding homes for certain homeless are that some don’t want to be housed and others aren’t so congenial once they move in, creating disturbances in their complexes and becoming a nuisance to landlords. Reynolds concurred. He said that while the plan isn’t a bad one — he has witnessed those with substance abuse problems and other issues respond well to stability and eventually turn their lives around — the model doesn’t fit everyone.
Peter Brown, community services manager for the city of Ventura, has played a critical role in dealing with the homeless and also with the public’s concern over the issue since 2001. He sat on the board of the coalition during the initial creation of the plan and then the recalibration. Of all the changes that had been made over the years, he said he wishes he had done one particular thing differently.
“If I could have changed one thing, I would have never called it the ‘10’-year-strategy to end homelessness,” he said. Though that was a federal mandate, he said that to accomplish such a task, a 10-year time period is simply not feasible.
Two steps forward, one step back
Rob Orth, the director of social services at the Salvation Army in Ventura, has nearly a decade of experience in working with the homeless. He witnessed firsthand how the Great Recession changed the dynamics of funding homeless programs and services, including the limited options available for rehousing while the homeless population grew and the demographics changed.
“We started seeing reductions in funding across the board, reduced federal grant dollars,” Orth said. “The donors started holding onto their money because of fears of the economy heading south. That affected some organizations more than others. The agencies serving the poorest of the poor had the toughest time raising money; agencies were [too] busy to take care of business.”
The forward momentum achieved with the creation of the 10-year strategy and the ensuing countywide collaboration stalled just one year after the completion of the initial 10-year plan to end homelessness. While residents of the county continued to express their concerns and complaints about the homeless, the agencies dedicated to the cause were struggling themselves. It was a perfect storm — a disaster in the making.
“The Red Cross attaches themselves to major disasters — they [the disasters] are horrible, and national agencies ride on drama,” Orth said. “As a country, we have not looked at poverty and homelessness as a disaster. The country doesn’t pay attention until it has to.
“We have a community like the city of Ventura, with panhandlers standing all over the place,” Orth continued. “They are driving the community to the point, they don’t understand it. ‘Who are these folks? Why should I care? Why can’t they just go get a job?’ There is a huge lack of understanding about the makeup of the homeless population. There is homeless burnout — they just want to make [the homeless] just go away.”
Orth and his colleagues know the disconnect too well. Residents blame city officials, agencies, etc., for the “homeless problem.” Residents don’t see themselves as a part of the solution; they just want it fixed, posthaste. But the path to end an age-old problem is often meandering, with no established formula that works for everyone. The issue, more so than anything else, according to so many homeless advocates, is the fact that there isn’t a homeless problem; the reality is that there are hundreds of unique individuals and families in Ventura County who don’t have homes for almost innumerable reasons.
Humanizing the homeless
Over the last seven years, local government along with agencies and numerous volunteers have worked in tandem to identify the homeless as well as their individual needs. The countywide counts show progression, with a decrease from 2,193 homeless individuals in 2009, at its height, to 1,774 in 2013. The 2014 count is currently being processed. In doing the count last year, volunteers also surveyed unsheltered individuals to further understand and identify them and their needs. The demographics in the charts reveal just a smidgeon of what local advocates are facing when it comes to addressing the needs of the homeless. In the next part of our series to come out in June, the VCReporter will delve further into the complicated world of homelessness, profiling individuals with varying backgrounds and their current needs.