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Homeless in Marin

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Marin County is taking another swing at reducing homelessness using an innovation called the Charrette process.

Homeless in Marin County

June 25th, 2012 was the first of two days of intense dialogue between local and regional experts as well as the interested public. The program was facilitated by The Corporation for Supportive Housing, a national non-profit devoted to helping communities like Marin County find housing solutions for people living on the streets.

For each of six problem areas (Prevention, Access to Services, Permanent Housing Options, Harm Reduction/Crisis Intervention, Criminalization of Homelessness, Chronic Homelessness), the experts sat in a small circle (“fish tank”), surrounded by interested members of the public. Each problem area was first discussed by the experts, and then the audience responded for an additional hour. Everything was recorded for further analysis and distillation.

Local and regional experts discuss homeless solutions in Charrette fish tank.

Members of the public use the Charrette process to present their ideas.

Members of the public use the Charrette process to propose ideas for reducing homelessness.

Sparking New Ideas

The organizers took what they considered the best ideas and quickly produced a solution oriented plan. They weren’t starting from scratch because there are already many active organizations in Marin County finding some success in reducing the problems of homelessness. The goal, I think, was to find creative ways of doing an even better job, using approaches new to the local community.

As I watched the process played out, the automatic cynic in me wondered if this is much to do about nothing, just a splashy rehash of what everyone in the field already knows. I hope this little voice will be proven wrong, and all the time and work put into the meetings will result in a new wave of energy devoted toward what often appears to be an impossible mess.

The awkwardly titled resulting document, Framework to Inform the Marin Community Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, is certainly filled with good ideas. Unfortunately, all this will cost truckloads of money, and the public will have to be convinced that dollars spent now will save many more in the future. One of the presenters mentioned that over the course of ten years a million dollars is spent on average for each chronically homeless person in the community. The point was made in various ways that increasing the stock of supportive housing would save a huge amount of money in the long run, and save many lives as well.

Chronic Homelessness

I’m most interested in the chronically homeless, persons who have been homeless for a year or longer and who are in some way disabled, often because of mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, developmental disabilities, or severe personality disorders. It’s this portion of the community that consumes disproportionate amounts of police, court and jail resources. A Marin County count in January 2011 found 229 people who fit these criteria. About 143 of these homeless were sleeping outdoors or in abandoned structures. This seems low to me, just from the people I’ve seen moving about the Ritter Center this past year.

Street people in San Rafael, California.

Street people in San Rafael, California.

Charrette Recommendations for the Chronically Homeless

The Chronically Homeless section of the report made ten recommendations:

6.1 Create a multidisciplinary team to link highly vulnerable people with housing and supportive services (including clinical, social, and community support services).

6.2 Develop options for permanent housing with flexible support services that are “right sized” to the individual, targeting individuals who are sleeping outside.

6.3 Incorporate Housing First strategies for all homeless service providers that see chronically homeless individuals.

6.4 Employ relationship building techniques to engage people in services and housing, helping them to maintain housing stability. Identify natural family and community supports to help people maintain health and housing beyond provider services. Keep the focus on the outcome of the relationship.

6.5 Use income generating techniques to help people gain access to benefits or employment. Rapid Access to SSI/SSDI and Supported Employment are effective methods for people who experience chronic homelessness. Consider ways to create entrepreneurial avenues for people who are inclined artistically and have other natural talents to build on.

6.6 Explore temporary housing models with local faith based institutions, which may include creating safe monitored parking spaces.

6.7 Ensure the County’s systems integration work for Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug, and primary care consider and prioritize services for chronically homeless individuals.

6.8 Integrate the County’s integrated services approach with housing for those experiencing long-term homelessness.

6.9 Advocate for housing and services strategies under AB 109 for individuals who need that support.

6.10 Consider creating a peer mentor program that employs formerly chronically homeless people to engage and support people who are currently chronically homeless to help them move into housing and more healthy living.

Other ideas I think worth considering

1.  Have  a multidisciplinary team in a roving van, making regular stops at known homeless gathering places. This van could make evening rounds, especially in bad weather, to take street people to safe overnight accommodations. This would be concurrent with the existing winter program. Extend the winter program to year round.

2.  Find more effective ways of involving homeless people in decision making. Programs like the Ritter Center could have regular community meetings, encouraging clients to take a proactive role in their own welfare. Seek out natural leaders and help them to obtain mutually agreed to goals.

3.  Create a simplified “One Stop” website, with easy access to all Marin County homeless services. This site could also provide a way for all stakeholders to share ideas.

4.  Conveniently locate computer stations preloaded with resources likely to be useful to the homeless — some in libraries with trained volunteer helpers.

5.  Someone should be keeping track of new research and the most successful programs in the US and around the world. These findings should be easily available and made attractive enough to insure regular review by the homeless provider community.

6.  Consider appointing a homeless czar, someone to advise and coordinate homeless policy, someone who has the respect of the entire community. I nominate Dr. Joel Fay.

7.  Give serious consideration to supporting a campground for street people who would otherwise be without shelter. Permanent housing plans are laudable, but it is inhuman to have people sleeping in the wind and rain until far-off solutions are obtained. Social service providers could visit the site daily, and strict regulations could insure sanitary and safe conditions. The campground could be on the grounds of Homeward Bound of Marin. This is not a new idea, and is being explored in other cities.

8. The San Rafael business community has long complained about street people hurting commerce downtown. An outreach team, funded by the business association, would help by directing street people to appropriate services.

9. A day center for the homeless, both wet and dry, would be helpful. This could be on the grounds of Homeward Bound of Marin.

As I mentioned earlier, I was a bit skeptical of the Charrette process (old wine in new bottles) at first because most if not all reasonable solutions are already known to anyone willing to do little googling — but now I’m hopeful that the novelty of the Charrette Process will encourage renewed efforts at putting best practices to work in Marin County.

The process continues

The San Rafael City Council Homelessness Subcommittee , headed by the mayor, held the first of three stakeholder group meetings on July 24th. I’m hoping actionable goals can be set and implemented soon.

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2 Responses

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  1. This is at least an attempt. Homelessness is everywhere these days, and anybody with a home should thank their lucky stars. All land and buildings are “owned”, so there’s no scope for people to make a shelter and scratch out a living on their own terms — say, when the bank evicts them. (And some people, as you imply, might not be able to do that anyway.) I especially like your point 7.

    Suzanne Miller

    July 26, 2012 at 6:50 am

    • It’s frustrating to see how long it takes to get anything done. I went to another meeting the other day and it seemed the “stakeholders” at the table were starting from scratch even though there are many good ideas floating around.

      Ron Greene

      July 27, 2012 at 8:42 am


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