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Guest Opinion | Sonja K. Berndt: Concerns About Homeless Count

Published on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 | 11:45 am
 

The 2022 Homeless Count Report (“HCR”) raises grave concerns. Our City has made no appreciable progress over the past two years in decreasing the number of persons experiencing homelessness in our City. According to the Housing Department’s mission statement, its core  values include “decent, safe, affordable housing as an equal right for all Pasadena residents.” It is impossible to meet that core value because the Department is severely underfunded. And as  discussed below, our City’s approach to providing interim housing for our unsheltered is expensive, inefficient and ineffective. Our City can, and must, do better.

According to the 2020 Homeless Count, Pasadena had a total of 527 unhoused people, 294 of which had no shelter at all. According to 2022 Homeless Count, Pasadena had 512 unhoused persons, 280 of which had no shelter at all. The staff report tries to put a positive spin on these new numbers by saying there is a continuing “leveling off” of homelessness in our City. (Staff  Report, p. 2.) The HCR notes our homelessness numbers are “holding steady.” (HCR, p. 11.)  But the goal of our City is to end homelessness, not “hold the numbers steady.”

The 2022 homelessness figures show that our City has failed to even make an appreciable dent in the number of persons experiencing homelessness. Moreover, there is a strong likelihood that the “unsheltered” number of 280 is an undercount. As noted in the staff report and HCR,  persons are counted as “sheltered” even if they are in a motel for one night using a “voucher”  provided under the City’s motel “voucher” program. (Staff Report, pp. 1, 3.) It was raining on  the night of the 2022 Homeless Count. Significantly, the HCR notes that of those 45% categorized as sheltered persons, 37% were in emergency shelters and only 8% in transitional housing. (HCR, p. 12.) There is no data showing whether the persons in “emergency shelter” 1 received one night of shelter from the rain and were back on the street the following night.  Counting a person who receives one night of shelter in a year as “sheltered” is misleading and is  unhelpful in determining an effective approach to providing for our unhoused neighbors.

Unsheltered persons are extremely vulnerable due to substantial chronic health conditions;  undiagnosed and untreated mental illness; substance use disorders; malnutrition, and/or other  substantial problems, including threats to their personal safety. (See Pasadena Homeless Count — 2020, pp. 23-25; see also, HCR, p. 15.) Interim housing (temporary housing between living on  the street and permanent housing) provides personal safety, security for belongings, toilets,  showers, laundry facilities, meals, assistance with medical needs (such as onsite nurses who monitor blood pressure), linkage to benefits (such as health insurance, SSI, etc.), etc.

Our City’s primary method of interim housing is brief stays in motel rooms for a fraction of our unsheltered residents (using federal and state funding when available). That program is  expensive ($100/night on average without any services), ineffective and inefficient. Once a  motel night is over, the money is used up, the room is gone, and the person is back on the street.

According to the staff report, the City has received an influx of new, one-time grant funds that have supported the expansion of the motel “voucher” program. “With this infusion of new  funding and subsequent expansion of emergency shelter, more of our unhoused residents have  been able to sleep inside and take refuge from the streets while moving forward on their path to  permanent housing.” (Staff Report, p. 4.)

First of all, the motel “voucher program” is wholly funded by non-city funding, and the funding is not guaranteed. In fact, the Housing Department’s FY2023 budget is more than $1.3 million  LOWER than last year due to the end of pandemic-related grants. (Proposed FY2023 Housing Budget, p. 5.)

Secondly, the report fails to provide any data showing whether this expensive interim housing model has been successful, justifying simply more of the same and a continuation of the City’s motel “voucher” program. The Department needs to quantify “more of our unhoused residents”  that were able to sleep inside and “take refuge from the streets.” Further, what was the length of motel stay? One night? Five nights? This missing data is critical because according to Housing  Department staff it can take over one year to obtain permanent housing. A few nights in a motel during inclement weather, or a night here and there to provide a bed and a shower provides little  refuge from life on the streets.

We do have some data on program results of the motel “voucher” program. According to the  December 8, 2021 Housing Department staff report to the ED Tech Committee, the City expended $2.2 million to fund motel-based shelter services. (12/8/2021 Staff Report, p. 5.) With these federal, state and county funds, for 2019, 2020, and 2021 (January through June) it  “served” a total of 390 persons in motels (de-duplicated). (Id. at p. 3.) Sadly, less than 20% of  the participants served exited a shelter program to permanent housing over this two-and-one-half 2 year period. (Ibid.) The report notes that 38% exited to other shelter programs without explaining why these participants could not continue to be sheltered with vouchers. And it failed  to explain what happened to the other 42%. (Ibid.)

Significantly, Housing Department staff described life on the street to the ED Tech Committee  last December in this way: “It’s very unsafe on the street. People don’t sleep much.”  (12/8/2021 Mtg., timestamp 1:16:00.) Since life on the street in our City is “very unsafe,” why  are we not treating this as an emergency public safety and public health crisis? Why are we not seriously considering, creating, and funding proven alternative interim housing models to protect  our most vulnerable residents?

At its December 8, 2021 meeting, the ED Tech Committee tasked Housing staff to get specific  information on the number of motel nights provided for our unsheltered folks and a cost  comparison of the motel “voucher” program and alternative models of interim housing.  Chairperson Hampton agreed to agendize the subject of the tiny-home interim housing model  stating it was an important discussion. (12/8/21 ED Tech Mtg., timestamp 1:02:00.) The  information still has not been presented and the subject of tiny homes still has not been  agendized.

The staff report attempts to defend the lack of an effective interim housing strategy with the  statement “Meeting the shelter needs of people experiencing homelessness hinges on the  continued focus of the creation of permanent housing opportunities as much as it does on the  expansion of shelter resources. … While increasing permanent housing remains a top priority,  the City is committed to creating and funding a continuum of programs that meet the immediate  and long-term needs of our unhoused residents.” (Staff Report, p. 6.)

The evidence of the City’s “commitment” to funding the immediate needs of our unhoused residents is as follows: In the adopted FY2022 budget, the Housing Department allocated ZERO  General Fund dollars for interim housing. Moreover, of its entire FY2022 adopted budget, the  Housing Department allocated just 2% for interim housing. Respectfully, this evidence explains  why the lack of interim housing is a substantial hole in our City’s approach to homelessness.

What will our City and specifically our Housing Department devote to interim housing for  FY2023? We cannot tell from the Housing Department’s FY2023 budget narrative. However,  the narrative notes “Although Pasadena continues to receive one-time increases in funding from  the State, a reliable source of ongoing funding is needed to support high priority needs such as  . . . increasing shelter capacity.” (FY2023 Housing Department Budget, p. 6.) What this  suggests to me is that our City’s approach to interim housing is (1) if we get money from non city sources, we will provide motel vouchers for some of our unsheltered residents; and (2) when  the money runs out, our unsheltered residents will be back on the street.

There are alternatives to our expensive and ineffective motel “voucher” program. Tiny home  shelter villages and re-purposed motels are being established in many Southern California cities  and are successfully transitioning unhoused residents to permanent housing. They are cost effective, allow re-use of sleeping quarters as clients receive permanent housing, and provide  efficient case management services on site.

But first, the subject of tiny homes must be agendized at the ED Tech Committee as promised  months ago. And at that meeting, we need experienced service providers like Hope of the  Valley, which has operated numerous tiny home communities and is intimately familiar with the  cost, services offered, and program results.

The City must appropriate more General Fund dollars if we are to have any hope of ending  homelessness in our City. Additionally, the City has $20 million coming this month in American  Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government. With some of those funds, our City could  alleviate the suffering of many of our unsheltered folks by creating a tiny home community or re purposed motel so they are truly safe and have onsite access to services that will significantly  help them transition to permanent housing and wellness.

The 2022 Homeless Count should set off alarm bells and spur this Council to action. Our most  vulnerable residents need your help. Please provide the funding for an effective interim housing  program. Thank you for your time and consideration of this letter.

Sonja K. Berndt is a  retired state prosecutor who resides in Pasadena.

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