Column by Sharon Byrne
The good news: 600 volunteers came out for the count, the Milpas Outreach Project got kudos for getting 9 chronically homeless individuals into stable living situations, and 74% of homeless individuals interviewed now have some form of health insurance, thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
The not-so-good news: the count was relatively flat in terms of number of individuals counted, 1,455 in 2015 vs 1,466 in 2013. While some shifts in population were seen, with Santa Barbara now carrying 61.3% of the county’s homeless population this year vs 64.53% in 2013, Santa Maria’s tally picked up. They counted 324 individuals experiencing homelessness, vs 243 back in 2011, the first time the count was conducted countywide.
15% of those counted were veterans, yet they also racked up the longest time living on the street at 8.3 years.
Most individuals counted were found on the street (38%) or living in a car (16%). Those in transitional housing decreased from 10% to 3%, a stat that needs examination.
Interestingly, when questioned about where they were before becoming homeless, the responses were:
North Santa Barbara County: 23.5%
South Santa Barbara County: 30%
Elsewhere in the state: 22.5%
Out of state: 0%
No answer: 24%
The out-of-state answer prompted questioning during the presentation on results. Something in the way the survey questions were constructed regarding origin data probably accounts for that result.
The oldest individual interviewed was 83. Average age was 43. Average length of time being homeless was 5.5 years.
There were 620 individuals identified as chronically homeless, and those are the most costly to society as they use a high level of crisis services, hospitals, and spend more time in jail.
For the veterans, the news is pretty dire. They have spent the longest time on the streets, and 66.4% have some sort of mental health diagnosis, with 51.8% reporting PTSD. They were found more often in the street than in shelters. The Veteran’s Administration has been under quite a bit of fire in the national media for poor treatment of veterans, though our experience of them in the Milpas Outreach Project is strong responsiveness to serving homeless veterans we’re working with.
Housing placements (countywide) are as follows since May of 2013:
284 Chronically Homeless individuals
Mayor Schneider has signed up for two aggressive challenges: one to end veteran homelessness in the US by the end of this year, and another to end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there, as the saying goes. Achieving these will take some major chutzpah, though.
Enter the Big Frickin’ Wall: Housing. Santa Barbara is now in the grips of perhaps the tightest rental market in the city’s history. With less than ½% vacancy in residential rental units, rents have shot up markedly. People are paying top dollar for rock-bottom units. The market has priced many rentals out of reach for Section 8 and VASH (Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing). Low-income, working class, students, and even professional service sector individuals are chasing some of the same units sought for placement of homeless individuals. Clearly, Santa Barbara is not going to build our way out of this problem, so something has to shift on this landscape.
Enter Social Venture Partners, who presented a solution they’re exploring here locally. They’ve examined best practices for housing placements across the nation, and are modeling their project on Seattle’s program. Seattle too had a low-vacancy, high-density downtown, and a large homeless population. Their solution was to get creative with existing housing, and look at home-shares, master-leasing and different parts of the city for placements. They have a Landlord-Liaison program that works with landlords to place individuals ready to succeed in housing. Assistance with deposits, mediation, and ongoing case management reduces the financial risk to landlords significantly. Seattle housed over 400 people in 4 years this way, without building anything new. 94% of the people Seattle housed using this model are still housed a year later. The plan is to roll it out here second quarter of this year.
It’s aggressive, ambitious, and then some. The flat count, especially given the Herculean efforts of Common Ground, the Restorative Police, the Milpas Outreach Project, and many others…is disappointing. Without them, perhaps the count would have been far higher.