By THERESA WALKER | [email protected] | Orange County Register
June 29, 2016 at 7:00 am
It took Elizabeth Townsend a good two years before she knew Diamond Apartment Homes truly was home.
Up until then, Townsend, an alcoholic trying to stay sober, felt the insecurity of years of being homeless and unstable.
“I figured it would go away,” she says. “I didn’t have enough faith in the people and in myself.”
She’s not talking just about her apartment.
On-site social services are readily available to the residents of the 25-unit complex in Anaheim. And that makes all the difference in keeping them off the streets.
Approaching five years of sobriety in July, Townsend is one of a growing number of people in Orange County to benefit from a shift in funding and philosophy on how to best serve the chronically homeless.
“It’s a blessing,” says the 52-year-old Townsend, who has spent four years at Diamond. “It’s actually kept me sober.”
A PERMANENT APPROACH
Diamond, which opened in 2009, is one of Orange County’s earliest examples of what is called permanent supportive housing – subsidized apartments that provide not only a place to live but the support to help the chronically homeless remain stable.
The main criteria to qualify: a disabling condition coupled with having been homeless for at least a year or experiencing multiple episodes of homelessness.
The three-story complex, with cheery landscaping, a tot lot and a barbecue area with picnic tables, is the rare site built specifically for the homeless.
More often, permanent supportive housing involves renting an apartment or two at so-called scattered sites, where roving case managers maintain contact.
It has been only in the past 10 years or so that the federal government, through funds provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has focused hundreds of millions of dollars on permanent supportive housing.
Until recently, homeless advocates say, Orange County largely has been behind the trend.
New outreach is speeding up efforts to reach the most vulnerable people on the streets and in temporary shelters. There’s more money to do it, but also a crisis-level sense of urgency.
“If we don’t, they’ll die,” said Larry Haynes, the executive director of Mercy House, the nonprofit that operates the winter shelter program at the armories.
Last year, almost half as many more homeless people – 181 – died in Orange County than did in 2014, according to the Orange County Coroner Division. Some advocates fear this year might be even deadlier.
At the start of 2015, Orange County had 580 chronically homeless residents, according to the federally mandated Point-in-Time count conducted over a single night.
That’s a small slice of the 4,452 homeless people counted that night; advocates consider homeless numbers much higher than the snapshot recorded.
Mercy House took the lead in 2015 on behalf of six nonprofits that joined together to secure $2.5 million in HUD funding for permanent supportive housing.
Since September, that money has provided homes and services to 106 people. Vouchers provided by the city of Santa Ana will allow 50 more to be placed, Haynes said.
Separately, Mercy House has worked with the city and Community Development Partners out of Newport Beach since December to move 59 people into permanent supportive housing at Guest House, a converted motel on First Street near I-5.
Mercy House, the county’s largest provider of homeless services, has been criticized by the homeless and other advocates for being too slow in delivering on some county contracts awarded the organization.
“This is a game changer,” Haynes said at a May gathering to tout the collective effort. “I think for the first time in Orange County, (nonprofits) are saying, ‘We’re willing to give up some control for the greater good.’”
The collaborative includes nonprofits in all areas of the county: Colette’s Children’s Home; Friendship Shelter; Jamboree Housing Corp.; Mercy House; Orangewood Foundation; and Share Our Selves.
Along with renewal of the $2.5 million award, this year HUD gave the group an additional $1.5 million to house 60 more homeless people. New partners were added: American Family Housing; Family Assistance Ministries; Pathways of Hope; Human Options; and Step Up on Second.
A second group of four other local nonprofits – Illumination Foundation, Strength in Support (a veteran-focused group), City Net and Latino Health Access – also was granted $1.4 million in HUD funds for permanent supportive housing.
Their focus is Santa Ana’s Civic Center homeless population of about 500. The so-called Street2Home outreach aims to provide permanent housing to either 95 individuals, 50 families or some combination.
“Things have moved faster these last two years than in the whole 10 years that we have been working with this population,” said Paul Leon, president of Illumination Foundation, the lead agency for Street2Home.
A lot of that has to do with federal funds being shifted from temporary transitional shelter programs that typically require an individual to “work a program” and meet certain goals or requirements – taking their medication or maintaining sobriety – before qualifying for placement in housing or a voucher to find their own.
Permanent supportive housing has been shown to have better outcomes for the chronically homeless and save money.
No figures are available yet in Orange County, but a recent study by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found an average monthly public cost of $605 for people in supportive housing versus $2,897 for a similar homeless person.
Dawn Price, executive director at Friendship Shelter in Laguna Beach, said permanent supportive housing should be an easy sell on all accounts – even for those who bristle at the idea of giving a longtime addict a home.
“It makes sense if you want to save money, if you want to be compassionate, if you want your parks and streets and beaches back,” she said. “Because it’s taking people off the streets.”
But there was skepticism about the wisdom of giving people who suffer from severe mental illness, deep substance abuse, or both, an apartment of their own.
Even with a host of services provided directly to them, what was the guarantee they would stay? Would they use the services? Could they get better?
“It was a hard transition for even our case managers,” said Leon, a former county public health nurse who left to form Illumination Foundation and adopted the “housing first” approach in 2007.
“They were like, ‘I don’t know. I just don’t feel comfortable putting an addict into an apartment,’” Leon continued. “They were worried that it wouldn’t work and that it would cause more harm to the individuals you put in there.”
Those who provide permanent supportive housing cite 80 percent to 90 percent retention. For living proof, there are residents of communities such as Diamond.
Townsend rested on a loveseat in the lobby next to her longtime boyfriend Greg Apodaca, also a recovering alcoholic. They live together. Neighbors Rhonda Polite and John Kingsmore sat nearby. The atmosphere was cool, calm and comfortable.
Polite, 51, and Kingsmore, 63, once lived on the street and, before coming to Diamond, had rooms next to each other in a board-and-care home where Polite said residents were often “agitated.”
“People respect one another here,” said Polite, a gentle woman whose body shakes from tremors caused by a stroke. She lives with her therapy dog, Rusty.
Kingsmore, who suffers from hallucinations, said he spent a decade sheltering under bridges along the riverbed in Anaheim. He likes the outings at Diamond to the mall, the farmers market, the movies: “Honestly, I just go for the company.”
Polite, diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, spent months sleeping at a bus stop across from the Kaiser hospital in Riverside. She somehow made her way to Orange County and was wandering the streets before getting help.
Both take multiple medications for their mental illness. Polite, who spent six years in the U.S. Navy as a young adult, now drives and attends a night school where she studies court reporting. It’s taking her years, but she has a goal.
“If there were more places like this,” Polite said, “it would help other people. They would see how much their lives would change.”
For those permanent supportive housing recipients who reside in regular apartment buildings, case managers make regular visits and phone calls. Assistance can range from transportation to a doctor’s appointment to help washing dishes piled in the sink.
Troy Phillips, 38, moved into his own place in south Orange County two days before Thanksgiving. Phillips, who grew up in Mission Viejo, abused both drugs and alcohol. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2014, after spending about 10 years off and on behind bars.
Phillips failed in transitional programs at Friendship Shelter. He scored 15 of 17 on a vulnerability index used to assess eligibility for permanent supportive housing. He had been sleeping on cardboard behind a trash bin.
So happy to move in to his furnished one-bedroom, Phillips took a selfie sitting on his couch. He pays 30 percent of his income from disability toward his rent.
“God was looking out for me, I guess,” he said. “That’s the only way I can see it. It was hard for me to understand that they just gave me an apartment.”
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