Winchell Dillenbeck: Homeless Point-in-Time count distorted, so what’s the real problem?

The 2017 Point-in-Time count totals 668 homeless individuals in Humboldt County compared to 1,180 in the last Point-in-Time Count in 2015. Humboldt County claims there has been a large reduction of over 40 percent in its homeless population.

County officials attribute the drop to collaborative rehousing efforts. The county credits the Housing First Program in 2016 with finding permanent housing for 217 chronically homeless individuals. Is this true? What’s the real problem?

The Point-in-Time (PIT) count is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night. The Point-in-Time count is a requirement to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD ensures that when they fund projects in a community that all the providers are working together to coordinate services, reduce duplication, and bridge gaps in service through a Continuum of Care Program.

The Continuum of Care Program is designed to promote community-wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness; provide funding for efforts by nonprofit providers, and state and local governments to quickly rehouse homeless individuals and families while minimizing the trauma and dislocation caused to homeless individuals, families and communities by homelessness; and optimize self-sufficiency among individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

The Continuum of Care Program is administered by the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition (HHHC). HHHC evaluates providers proposed plans through a rating and ranking process to determine the community’s current needs. HHHC ensures projects that are funded through the grant are tracked through a community-wide Homeless Management Information System.

Counting the homeless has always been part science, part guesswork, and part politics.

Here’s the catch. The Point-in-Time count requires that all homeless persons must ll out a survey that is required by HUD. The Survey is six pages long. It highly discourages homeless persons from filling out the survey.

There is a very strict definition for homeless categories as to who and what is counted. The actual counting is problematic because:

• Police enforcement on homeless persons prior to the count lead to reduced numbers.*

• Jails where the homeless are criminalized are not counted.

• Homeless persons living in the forests are not counted because it is too dangerous.

• Homeless persons sleeping in cars are difficult to find.

• Does not include those who are “couch surfing” or resorting to other types of shelter.

• HUD reported over 10 times fewer children experiencing homelessness on a given night than the Department of Education has registered, a number that has more than doubled over the last decade. Twenty-two percent of people experiencing homelessness are children.

HHHC claims that the Point-in-Time Count does not reduce funding because HUD does not base their grant upon the numbers in the Point-in-Time Count, but per the National Coalition for the Homeless, HUD clearly provides bonuses to communities that decrease their count creating a disincentive for those conducting counts to locate every unsheltered person.

HHHC supports the Policy Papers of the City of Eureka and Humboldt County officials in which Megan Kurteff Schatzof of Focus Strategies states, “Eureka’s leadership and community stakeholders are overwhelmingly committed to solving the problem of visible homelessness.” The Housing First approach offers permanent affordable housing with a priority given to the most chronically homeless persons. These chronically homeless persons tend to be the most visible. The real goal is to remove these individuals from the street so that public perception will be that the homeless population is decreasing.

Housing First stipulates that the provider is obligated to bring robust support services and connections to the community-based supports that people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness.

Unfortunately, the funding provided by HUD does not adequately provide enough money for the necessary support services to rehabilitate the chronically homeless persons in order to be successful and keep their housing on a permanent basis.

Housing represents the fundamental base-solution to the problem of homelessness. The lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs contributes to the current housing crisis and to homelessness.

The de cit of affordable housing has led to high rent burdens, overcrowding, and substandard housing, which has not only forced many people to become homeless but has also put a growing number of people at risk of becoming homeless.

The housing shortage in Humboldt County has been verified by Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Regional Economic Development Commission, and his panel which concluded “the supply of housing for sale or rent is reaching a critical low point and is heading in the wrong direction.”

In addition, the requirements for new housing have added significant costs and the costly and slow process for getting permits to build discourages new investments.

The U.S. did not always have such a dire lack of affordable housing. The 1970s into the 1980s saw drastic cuts to federal affordable housing programs. Today, there is much focus on creating permanent supportive housing for people who chronically experience homelessness due to disability or health issues.

But building affordable housing takes too long because of political foot-dragging, municipal agency delays, and the painstaking process of raising money from multiple sources. Thus, affordable housing is not being built at a pace fast enough to end homelessness.

Homelessness is the result of a whole series of events that result in diminished capacity, loss of self-determination, most often loss of employment, loss of family, isolation, poverty and lack of self-esteem, all leading to the inability to pay for housing.

Walking out of a home without knowing where to lay your head that night is the final straw in a long line of trials that are brought on by life’s cruel circumstances, some prompted by bad habits and self-deception, others the result of substance abuse or mental illness. There is no one single factor that if solved, will end homelessness as we know it.

Housing First is a very specific model designed to help the many chronically homeless who are persistently mentally ill and are resistant to strict transitional housing programs.

These homeless are housed rst, and then offered an array of optional services in an attempt to improve their quality of life. Proponents say it is more humane to offer them housing even if they continue the destructive habits that led to their homelessness. Detractors say this is simply warehousing the chronically homeless and that rehabilitation is critical to their well-being and more emphasis should be put on the on the support services than can lead to an improvement to their quality of life.

The problem is that the Housing First movement gained so much favor that many tout it as the only solution to homeless of all stripes, mentally ill or not, employed or not.

But if housing were the solution, we could simply build our way out of the problem. First, it ignores that long line of events which led to their homelessness. Addressing those issues is how we heal the wounds that caused their homelessness., and is how we empower people with the skills to lift themselves out of homelessness.

Second, how about all the people who are falling into homelessness every year, which is two-and-a-half times the number of people homeless on any one night.

Fifty percent of homeless persons are new people who have never been homeless before, with early school leavers, drug users and those in the criminal justice system most at risk.

As is often the case, the answer to a problem of this complexity is multifaceted and there is no easy fix. A solution will force us to not only look at the homeless and the many needs they have, but at ourselves and our society and the way we live.

The haves and have-nots are farther and farther apart. The solution will demand that we deploy a robust range of prevention and early intervention services that will slow the ow of people sliding off the edge.

This will not be cheap, but it is considerably less expensive and more humane than waiting for people’s lives to unravel and end up on the streets.

The government industry that supports the elimination of homelessness in the end creates a never-ending cycle that supports these homeless services.

The industry is forced to chase its tail by following the funding with its new terminology but never provides the adequate funding to build enough affordable housing and adequate support systems to eliminate homelessness and thus leads to the same old results.

Homelessness is not diminishing. Poverty is here to stay.

Winchell Dillenbeck is a McKinleyville resident.

Note: Rumored sweeps of homeless encampments by the Sheriff's Office or Eureka Police prior to this year’s PIT count could not be verified by the Union. If anyone has information to verify the alleged pre-count enforcement actions, please contact the Union. – Ed.


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