By Olin Ericksen
Second of three parts
May 10 -- From unwilling landlords and lengthy bureaucratic
delays to encouraging the most hardened homeless to leave
the streets they have long called home behind, many challenges
remain for Santa Monica's Chronic Homeless Program.
Of the 110 homeless people targeted by the three-year-old
program, 57 are now in some form of housing. But 53, or roughly
half, remain entrenched in life on the street.
While slow-going, City officials are hailing the program
-- which is being tried in a growing number of cities across
the country, including New York and San Francisco -- as a
success that could be expanded under the right conditions.
"For a group that has been homeless for an average of
nine years -- some longer than 20 years -- this is a major
accomplishment," said Julie Rusk, the City's Human Services
Manager and a member of the City's Chronic Homeless Subcommittee.
"It can be very, very complicated to convince someone
to come inside after so long," said Dorothy Berndt, a
licensed clinical worker who spearheads the programs, which
counts on the support of nearly a dozen groups, ranging from
police and city officials to non-profit social service agencies.
The program and its companion serial inebriate program target
those who are the biggest financial and physical drain on
City services and local hospitals, including police, paramedics
and private heath workers.
The “chronically homeless” are also typically
the most resistant to accepting help, and the numbers prove
it, officials said.
Of those targeted by the program who remain homeless, 27
have some sort of plan laid out to get them to use services
that include taking steps to earn an income from stipends.
Five are outright refusing any help, while another 18 cannot
be found and are considered "missing."
None of those targeted is in jail, but three have been hospitalized
for medical conditions. Three have died while in housing from
preexisting conditions and deteriorating health.
Many of the chronically homeless are difficult to engage,
because they are seniors who are set in their ways, officials
"The accumulative time on the streets is more than 800
years, while the oldest is 89," said Berndt.
The average age of those targeted by the program is 66, and
a slim majority are men, according to City statistics. Fully
14 of the 110 targeted are classified as veterans.
Perhaps most telling is the average time spent living on
the streets: One year shy of a full decade.
"Many are challenged by becoming psychologically accustomed
to living in the streets," said Amy Turk, project director
for OPCC's communal living Day Break program. "Some have
to work through issues related to self-worth and confidence
to learn that they, too, deserve a safe place to live."
Standing at the threshold of her new home last February,
Judy Warren -- a program participant -- said the experience
was surreal and overwhelming enough to drive her back to the
shelter for one more night, before returning the next day
with the support of her case manager.
"I think you get kind of used to that living on the
street," said the well-manicured Warren. "Just the
little things, like seeing the mail man and people coming
out to walk their dogs… It's like hello Mr. Roger's
neighborhood. It was like a perfect world."
In addition to getting used to living indoors, becoming sober
for Warren meant she had to carefully choose which street
friends she could allow back into her life.
"I just don't see a lot of them anymore," she said,
adding that she still allows a few to make short visits. "I
have to set my boundaries."
While it is hard enough to help change the habits of homeless
people who live by routine, perhaps a more foreboding obstacle
"One of the largest barriers is finding housing in Santa
Monica," said Turk. "When someone is ready to find
housing, with a Section 8 voucher, it can become discouraging
to find that few units are available in Santa Monica."
For some, the small window of opportunity may close when
they are finally willing to take that next step, said some
of the caseworkers interviewed.
While there is reportedly an abundance of vouchers, finding
landlords willing to rent to someone who was homeless and
may still be receiving help battling mental illness or drug
and alcohol addiction could be the toughest sell for the program.
"Landlord participation is the key to this program,"
said Turk. "Without willing, compassionate and understanding
landlords, the program alone cannot solve homelessness."
"The biggest issue we face is we don't have all the
housing we would like," she said. "We have a lot
of vouchers and not enough housing… apartments just
don't open up."
Yet there are benefits for landlords who participate in the
program, including guaranteed rent each month, as well as
support and aid, proponents said.
The OPCC service facility opened last year on Cloverfield
Boulevard near the City’s recycling center also “shows
that housing formerly homeless individuals does not bring
down property values in Santa Monica," said Turk.
"The Center (has) cosmetically improved the most traveled
intersection in Santa Monica,” Turk said. “The
architecture alone has enhanced the community."
In addition to the challenge of convincing unwilling landlords,
many of the homeless applying for the federally subsidized
units may have criminal arrest records, which must be heavily
scrutinized before they can be admitted.
While it may be hard to believe looking at Warren today,
she openly admits she broke the law to get by and get high
and spent time in and out of jail.
"I did a lot of things," said Warren, shaking her
head in seeming disbelief.
"When I was out there I was a big stealer. If I wanted
food or something, I'd go into Denny's, steal the tips off
tables and wash up in the bathroom," she said. "That
Addicted to crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamines and alcohol,
her crimes grew violent when she could not get drugs.
"I was in fights, I almost killed people," she
said. "You do what you had to do, because drugs had taken
over control of my life."
Every individual who applies for the subsidized housing is
fingerprinted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI),
which is looking primarily for sex offenders, according to
officials. Obtaining clearance can take six months, Berndt
"Sometimes it will come back (and) there is a ding on
their record, and we need to go in and find out exactly what
happened," she said. "Oftentimes (the crime) is
very minor or years old."
The City is currently talking with the police and federal
government to speed up the process, Berndt said. "We
are working on that now," she said.
Despite the seeming obstacles, the program has much going
for it, Berndt said.
The chronic homeless subcommittee -- made up of members of
groups that have not traditionally seen eye to eye, such as
police and service providers -- are now working together more
closely than ever under the program.
"I think all the agencies involved have become a closer
knit team," Berndt said.
Perhaps most importantly, the program is counting on the
political will of a City that has done more than its fair
share to help tackle the homeless problem in Los Angeles County,
which claims 85,000 of the 750,000 individuals who live on
the nation’s streets.
"Fortunately we live in a City and community that will
do whatever it takes to get people housed," said Berndt.
"There are many places in the region we cannot say the
NEXT -- Officials weigh in on Chronic Homeless Program
and what needs to be done to make it work.