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From Personal Habits to Bureaucracy, Obstacles to Housing the Chronically Homeless Loom Large

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

Second of three parts

May 10 -- From unwilling landlords and lengthy bureaucratic delays to encouraging the most hardened homeless to leave the streets they have long called home behind, many challenges remain for Santa Monica's Chronic Homeless Program.

Of the 110 homeless people targeted by the three-year-old program, 57 are now in some form of housing. But 53, or roughly half, remain entrenched in life on the street.

While slow-going, City officials are hailing the program -- which is being tried in a growing number of cities across the country, including New York and San Francisco -- as a success that could be expanded under the right conditions.

"For a group that has been homeless for an average of nine years -- some longer than 20 years -- this is a major accomplishment," said Julie Rusk, the City's Human Services Manager and a member of the City's Chronic Homeless Subcommittee.

"It can be very, very complicated to convince someone to come inside after so long," said Dorothy Berndt, a licensed clinical worker who spearheads the programs, which counts on the support of nearly a dozen groups, ranging from police and city officials to non-profit social service agencies.

The program and its companion serial inebriate program target those who are the biggest financial and physical drain on City services and local hospitals, including police, paramedics and private heath workers.

The “chronically homeless” are also typically the most resistant to accepting help, and the numbers prove it, officials said.

Of those targeted by the program who remain homeless, 27 have some sort of plan laid out to get them to use services that include taking steps to earn an income from stipends. Five are outright refusing any help, while another 18 cannot be found and are considered "missing."

None of those targeted is in jail, but three have been hospitalized for medical conditions. Three have died while in housing from preexisting conditions and deteriorating health.

Many of the chronically homeless are difficult to engage, because they are seniors who are set in their ways, officials said.

"The accumulative time on the streets is more than 800 years, while the oldest is 89," said Berndt.

The average age of those targeted by the program is 66, and a slim majority are men, according to City statistics. Fully 14 of the 110 targeted are classified as veterans.

Perhaps most telling is the average time spent living on the streets: One year shy of a full decade.

"Many are challenged by becoming psychologically accustomed to living in the streets," said Amy Turk, project director for OPCC's communal living Day Break program. "Some have to work through issues related to self-worth and confidence to learn that they, too, deserve a safe place to live."

Standing at the threshold of her new home last February, Judy Warren -- a program participant -- said the experience was surreal and overwhelming enough to drive her back to the shelter for one more night, before returning the next day with the support of her case manager.

"I think you get kind of used to that living on the street," said the well-manicured Warren. "Just the little things, like seeing the mail man and people coming out to walk their dogs… It's like hello Mr. Roger's neighborhood. It was like a perfect world."

In addition to getting used to living indoors, becoming sober for Warren meant she had to carefully choose which street friends she could allow back into her life.

"I just don't see a lot of them anymore," she said, adding that she still allows a few to make short visits. "I have to set my boundaries."

While it is hard enough to help change the habits of homeless people who live by routine, perhaps a more foreboding obstacle remains.

"One of the largest barriers is finding housing in Santa Monica," said Turk. "When someone is ready to find housing, with a Section 8 voucher, it can become discouraging to find that few units are available in Santa Monica."

For some, the small window of opportunity may close when they are finally willing to take that next step, said some of the caseworkers interviewed.

While there is reportedly an abundance of vouchers, finding landlords willing to rent to someone who was homeless and may still be receiving help battling mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction could be the toughest sell for the program.

"Landlord participation is the key to this program," said Turk. "Without willing, compassionate and understanding landlords, the program alone cannot solve homelessness."

Berndt agrees.

"The biggest issue we face is we don't have all the housing we would like," she said. "We have a lot of vouchers and not enough housing… apartments just don't open up."

Yet there are benefits for landlords who participate in the program, including guaranteed rent each month, as well as support and aid, proponents said.

The OPCC service facility opened last year on Cloverfield Boulevard near the City’s recycling center also “shows that housing formerly homeless individuals does not bring down property values in Santa Monica," said Turk.

"The Center (has) cosmetically improved the most traveled intersection in Santa Monica,” Turk said. “The architecture alone has enhanced the community."

In addition to the challenge of convincing unwilling landlords, many of the homeless applying for the federally subsidized units may have criminal arrest records, which must be heavily scrutinized before they can be admitted.

While it may be hard to believe looking at Warren today, she openly admits she broke the law to get by and get high and spent time in and out of jail.

"I did a lot of things," said Warren, shaking her head in seeming disbelief.

"When I was out there I was a big stealer. If I wanted food or something, I'd go into Denny's, steal the tips off tables and wash up in the bathroom," she said. "That was me."

Addicted to crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamines and alcohol, her crimes grew violent when she could not get drugs.

"I was in fights, I almost killed people," she said. "You do what you had to do, because drugs had taken over control of my life."

Every individual who applies for the subsidized housing is fingerprinted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), which is looking primarily for sex offenders, according to officials. Obtaining clearance can take six months, Berndt said.

"Sometimes it will come back (and) there is a ding on their record, and we need to go in and find out exactly what happened," she said. "Oftentimes (the crime) is very minor or years old."

The City is currently talking with the police and federal government to speed up the process, Berndt said. "We are working on that now," she said.

Despite the seeming obstacles, the program has much going for it, Berndt said.

The chronic homeless subcommittee -- made up of members of groups that have not traditionally seen eye to eye, such as police and service providers -- are now working together more closely than ever under the program.

"I think all the agencies involved have become a closer knit team," Berndt said.

Perhaps most importantly, the program is counting on the political will of a City that has done more than its fair share to help tackle the homeless problem in Los Angeles County, which claims 85,000 of the 750,000 individuals who live on the nation’s streets.

"Fortunately we live in a City and community that will do whatever it takes to get people housed," said Berndt. "There are many places in the region we cannot say the same for."

NEXT -- Officials weigh in on Chronic Homeless Program and what needs to be done to make it work.


“It can be very, very complicated to convince someone to come inside after so long." Dorothy Berndt


"I think you get kind of used to that living on the street. Just the little things, like seeing the mail man and people coming out to walk their dogs… It's like hello Mr. Roger's neighborhood. It was like a perfect world." Judy Warren


"One of the largest barriers is finding housing in Santa Monica. . . . Without willing, compassionate and understanding landlords, the program alone cannot solve homelessness." Amy Turk


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