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City Finds Housing “Chronically Homeless” No Easy Task

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

First of three parts

May 9 -- Judy Warren has a new lease on life. After nearly seven years of hard living on the streets of Los Angeles County and Santa Monica, the New Orleans native is now nearly indistinguishable from thousands of other residents living in apartments across the beachside city.

Judy Warren in her new apartment (Photo by Olin Ericksen)

But it wasn't always like that.

A two-week binge on drugs and alcohol nearly killed her last year and led Warren to check into a local Santa Monica service program to grab a meal and clean up. She was not intending to stay, until she came face to face with herself.

"I remember taking a long look at myself in the mirror and seeing dull spots on my skin and under my eyes, and I just really wasn't all there," said Warren, smiling as she talked last week. "I had stains on my teeth, and I was just like, ‘I got to get this together.’"

After months of intensive counseling and support, Warren crossed a threshold three months ago. She was handed the keys to an unfurnished, subsidized one-bedroom apartment on 12th Street and moved indoors for the first time in nearly a decade.

"I was standing at the door in disbelief, saying, ‘This is mine,’" recounted Warrant, now 37. "I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with this?’"

Celebrating one year of sobriety last month, Warren used to be one of the hundreds of street-hardened, or "chronically homeless," individuals among the estimated 2,800 people who live on the streets of Santa Monica.

Like many of them, she had lived outside for years, suffered from drug and alcohol addictions and some form of dysfunction, commonly mental illness.

Unlike many of them, though, Warren is now slowly learning to return to society, thanks to the City’s $1 million-plus, Chronic Homeless Program, which targets those who have been on the streets the longest and are the hardest to reach.

After nearly 34 months -- and a $1 million federal grant awarded last year -- the pilot program, which some say represents a radical new strategy to tackle homelessness, is showing results.

Of the 110 “chronically homeless” individuals targeted by the program, 57 are currently in some form of housing, including a smaller subset of 39 in permanent housing, according to City officials.

Like Warren, 19 live independently in apartment units scattered throughout Santa Monica and represent the best-case scenarios, City officials said.

"It was like a dream come true, like I won the lottery," said a jovial Warren, who this week earned her first paycheck for part-time cashiers work with the non-profit Step-Up-on-Second.

"I'm paying rent and gas, and living my life like a normal person." said Warren, who devotes 30 percent of her income from jobs and government stipends for living expenses, while the rest of the tab is paid for by federal grants.

The 110 individuals targeted by the program represent a total of 863 years of street living, and they welcome the chance to move indoors, officials said.

"Sometimes the first question we ask is, point blank, 'Are you seriously interested in becoming housed?’" said Dorothy Berndt, a licensed clinical social worker who consults for the City Housing Department and social service agencies. "That, sometimes, is all it takes."

More often than not, though, it takes much, much more.

Berndt oversees a Chronic Homeless Subcommittee, a group made up of a dozen civic groups that include local police and fire departments and non-profit social service agencies, such as St. Joseph's and OPCC, formerly known as the Ocean Park Community Center.

City Human Services officials are also among those prominent on the panel.

While they hold regular meetings over the year to discuss outreach strategy, the group's real work is on the streets of Santa Monica, approaching the City's die-hard homeless with a "whatever-it-takes" attitude.

Although using a push-pull strategy, with police sometimes used to prod homeless individuals from routines to steer them into services, much of the challenge is earning trust and being ever present, officials say.

"Often they are just tired and need a shower and we will offer them a hotel room for the night to clean up a bit and that's how it starts," said Berndt.

Social workers will then check up on the person, always encouraging them to go further in the program.

Yet the majority of people enrolled are not as far along as Warren, officials readily admit.

"We're talking about a street population that has been outside for a very long-time," said Berndt. "Some people have been on the streets and they don't know how to use a vacuum cleaner."

Paying bills, cooking dinner, cleaning and social interactions are also difficult, she said, even for those like Warren, who often still eats out, but has a knack for keeping tidy.

Using flexible standards and specialized approaches for each person, officials have pushed, cajoled, coaxed -- and sometimes even institutionalized -- 19 people into some other form of permanent housing other than apartments, officials said.

A total of 11 are enrolled -- and some committed to -- "Board and Care" or "Skilled Nursing" facilities, four are voluntarily enrolled in OPCC's Safe Haven communal living program, three are in sober living facilities and one is in permanent supportive housing, according to City statistics.

Another 18, representing the rest of the 57 in housing, are in various forms of temporary housing, including 12 in motels or shelters as they wait for housing, three in "transitional housing," two in treatment facilities and one is being temporarily housed in a single room occupancy unit, akin to a studio.

Those in temporary housing are working their way towards the next step, entering their own housing, Berndt said.

But it could take a number of false starts, and there is no guarantee they will ever get there, she said.

"We want to make sure we are not setting them up to fail by ruining their credit or in some other way," Berndt said of the take-it-slow approach. "We have to do intensive support in the beginning and then later we can relax a bit more.

"Oftentimes, people are not good with money, because they haven't had a checking or savings account in years," she said.

Despite the strides forward, Berndt and others suggest the road is still a long one for the program and faces a number of hurdles ahead.

NEXT -- While Warren is a success story, there are still many challenges remaining ahead for the program.


“It was like a dream come true, like I won the lottery." Judy Warren


"Often they are just tired and need a shower and we will offer them a hotel room for the night to clean up a bit and that's how it starts." Dorothy Berndt



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