Program Finds Homes for the Homeless

San Diego, Fresno and San Jose are among some 200 communities across the country trying a new strategy that is moving hundreds of chronically homeless people off the streets and into apartments. Santa Clara County is investing more than $1 million in housing subsidies, and tracking whether permanent housing will really keep people from returning to life on the streets.

Jennifer Loving is executive director of Destination Home in San Jose. She spent her formative years at a church in Venice Beach run by her uncle and family that kept its doors open to homeless people as a de facto shelter.

“I have cared about homelessness since I was nine-years-old and I have been involved in homeless services my entire adult career,” she says. “I care about this issue deeply and I feel like we are really onto something.”

Loving is part of a radically different approach to ending homelessness. Her organization brings together local governments and non-profits to collaborate in a project called Housing 1000. County vouchers are combined with funds from the city of San Jose, the federal government and other sources. So far the effort has placed 333 chronically homeless people in permanent housing in one of the most affluent counties in the state.

“With the housing prices here, it’s ridiculously difficult to get somebody housed — almost impossible,” says Hilary Barroga, with EHC Lifebuilders, one of the local groups participating in the program.

The focus is not managing homelessness through emergency shelters and transitional housing — that’s the old model. Barroga says the new goal is to find the most vulnerable people living on the streets and get them into permanent housing.

“Without an address, you can’t apply for a job. You can’t receive mail,” Barroga says. “So if you can’t receive your mail, you don’t know if you’ve qualified for a benefit, you can’t receive your bills anywhere and pay your bills on time. If you have to worry every night where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to be safe, you’re not thinking in the long term.”

Forty-three-year-old Jennifer Berry has been on and off the streets since she was 13 years old. She was in several domestic violence shelters and then an emergency shelter before the county placed her in a two- bedroom apartment in San Jose. She can now bring her daughters and three-year-old grandson under one roof for the first time.

The plan is based on Housing First, a nationally recognized best-practices model that is cost-effective and humane. It’s based on the idea that a person’s first need is stable housing. It’s nearly impossible to address other needs when someone has no permanent place to call home. Permanent housing brings stability and reduces the need for high-cost services typically accessed by the chronically homeless.

“It still takes me awhile to believe it,” Berry says. “You know, like wow! It’s like one of the first things I wake up in the morning and think about. It’s so cool!”

Berry can afford the apartment because the county pays a rental subsidy of $1,000 a month to her landlord. Berry also contributes part of her Supplemental Security Income to the rent. All the tenants in the program must pay a third of their monthly income, with a minimum of $20. But to reach the goal of getting 1,000 people into homes this year, the campaign will have to find a lot more landlords willing to participate.

“As a manager or property owner you have to protect all your other tenants,” says property manager Theresa Garcia. She hesitated at first when a prospective tenant told her he’d qualified for the Housing 1000 program.

“We had concerns about having a lot of homeless people coming over, hanging around the building,” Garcia says. “Being that the building, the doors are locked and you need a key to get in, we had concerns about possibly him leaving the main door open just so they can walk in and come up.”

Garcia manages a number of Victorians in downtown San Jose. In the end, she said yes.

“The case manager that’s involved with the tenant that we ended up renting to, he’s very open and he’s very involved in the whole situation. So if I have any questions I just call him,” she says.

Tracking whether permanent housing actually keeps people out of homelessness is part of this program. Destination Home’s Jennifer Loving says for the first time, service providers and government agencies are sharing data — and creating system-wide tools to evaluate costs. Loving says this will help them understand the individual profiles of people living on the streets.

“I don’t know that there’s a magic bullet. Right? It’s not like anything is utopia,” says Loving. “I mean it’s like every single housing unit, every single placement, every single piece of this is hard work. It’s challenging all of us to do this. But I think that every single time it works and someone moves in and gets their own place, I mean, that’s what makes it worth it.”

Santa Clara County has more than 2,500 chronically homeless people. So Housing 1000 has a large task ahead. Loving says by the end of the year, there will be hard data showing whether permanent housing for the homeless is the best way to keep people off the streets.