By Don Eskes
The city and county of Fresno have a significant homeless problem that is being addressed on a number of fronts. Still, there are big gaps in our approaches.
The latest point-in-time count by the Fresno-Madera Continuum of Care indicated that we have 1,351 unsheltered and 602 chronically homeless individuals on the streets of Fresno. This does not include the many people who are homeless but living indoors (cars, someone’s couch or garage, etc.)
The “situational homeless” are those who find themselves without the resources to obtain housing, Many of them have a support network (family and friends) who provide for their immediate needs.
They may live with these family members and friends, frequently moving based on the availability of help. For the most part, they are fully functioning and homelessness is their root problem. These are usually the easiest situations to deal with because the individuals want to get back to being productive members of society. They also are difficult to track or count.
Another segment of this same group are those who do not have a support network and have no place to go. At the Fresno Rescue Mission, we deal with hundreds of these individuals on an ongoing basis and we help them to access the services they need.
Creative Solutions Needed
But there is a bottleneck and shortage of affordable housing in Fresno. Even people with housing vouchers sometimes find themselves on the street. This is where the city and county, along with other agencies, must work to secure additional housing. It will take creative ideas and new innovative ways to increase housing for the homeless.
“Urban Campers,” as we call them, are the highly visible homeless. These are the panhandlers and the people hanging out in front of our businesses and in our neighborhoods. The vast majority of them have significant challenges, such as drug addiction, alcoholism or justice system issues.
This is the population that receives public attention and generates complaints from residents. This is also the population that the recently passed anti-camping ordinance is targeting. Some of the individuals in this group simply need housing but for the majority of them, homelessness is a symptom of deeper issues.
There are two housing approaches used to assist Urban Campers: the Housing First model and the Transitional Housing Progression model.
Under Housing First, the goal is to get homeless individuals into housing as rapidly as possible. The process begins with outreach, sheltering, transitional housing and, ultimately, permanent supportive housing or permanent housing. As these individuals go into housing they are “surrounded” with services. But while these services are made available to them, they are not mandated.
The Transitional Housing Progression model begins with an assessment of the underlying needs and requirements for the homeless individual and proceeds to supplying needed services.
This is done in conjunction with and as a requirement for receiving housing. Housing is only a symptom of the deeper need. Because this population has mental health needs, addictions or justice system issues, these needs are dealt with first.
When Housing First is used, only a certain percentage of homeless individuals will avail themselves of offered services. Even though they will be housed, they will not have gotten to the root of their issues and needs.
You might be interested in knowing that a 2013 report in the San Francisco Chronicle, “A Decade of Homelessness,” indicated limited success with this model. Of 9,000 people housed, only 5% received necessary services and moved out of supportive housing care from 2004 to 2013.
Today, San Francisco still has these individuals in housing. They are still panhandling and they still have their underlying issues. We understand that this model is endorsed by the federal government and there are mandates for federal funds provided for homeless housing.
When Transitional Housing Progression is used, the success rate is significantly higher. By dealing with the underlying factors that lead to homelessness, people are empowered to return to mainstream society. At the Fresno Rescue Mission, we case-manage each individual, determine their needs, and get them the services they need. And it doesn’t matter whether we provide the services or another agency does.
Over the past five years, we have provided case-management for almost 8,000 individuals and we have served more than 2,000 with our recovery services.
The Fresno Rescue Mission believes it is inhumane to allow individuals to live on the streets. If we really care for these people, we must do everything we can to get them off the streets and to the services they need.
Within that context, our goal is not to criminalize the homeless but to provide the services that will enable them to become productive members of society. We believe that giving housing to the homeless who have deep underlying issues without also giving them services is really inhumane. That’s because the Housing First approach only hides the problem from public view while doing nothing to help the individual.
The Fresno Rescue Mission is not in favor of the Housing First model in our community. We believe a Transitional Housing Progression model is much more effective and leads to more permanent solutions.
Don Eskes is CEO of the Fresno Rescue Mission, which has been serving the homeless population since 1949.