Hope Floats: Pilot Program For Chronically Homeless Gets Underway On Milpas


Hope Floats: Pilot Program For Chronically Homeless Gets Underway On Milpas

by Sharon Byrne on January 24, 2014 in Sharon Byrne

By Sharon Byrne, Part I, as featured in today’s Santa Barbara Sentinel

Over the past year and a half, a significant transformation has taken place on Milpas. From a neighborhood struggling with crime, suffering from urban decay, and feeling unheard at City Hall, it’s become a community where businesses, residents, non-profits, schools and police are all working together, and discovering that there is something special here. It’s now a place we can be proud of.

However, we have a few individuals in the area that continue to cause problems and generate significant police calls. They typically aren’t associated with any shelter or facility. They’ve often been banned for repeat poor behavior. They refuse services and offers of assistance. These are long-term, chronically homeless. The dramatic reduction of homeless individuals in the Milpas corridor over the past year had an interesting effect: the chronically homeless moved from background to prominent foreground. They are increasingly visible, and we know them by name, after having to repeatedly deal with the problems they cause.

Early last year, I began meeting with Jeff Shaffer, one of the new leaders of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, or C3H. I saw C3H’s early formation. The idea was to start coordinating services for the homeless countywide, and the job of coordinator would be tough. You have no direct authority, other than local government support to go this way. My hopes were not high, and it felt like it might be the usual gathering of various service providers and homeless activists, trotted out in new and improved form. Would they suddenly now have solutions? I had also grown weary of the continual unveiling of the latest magic bullet to solve homelessness over the years. First it was build more shelters. Then came the US Homeless Czar, and the 10 year plan to end homelessness for every jurisdiction. Ours read like a plan to have more meetings, with no real goals or real deliverables. Next it was 100k homes and the Common Ground count. Now, C3H was stepping up to solve homelessness for Santa Barbara County.

I was leery, but hoping for the best.

Talk Isn’t Cheap
Meeting with Jeff started as friendly conversations on the kind of initiative we could put together, involving the business community on Milpas, to deal with chronically homeless that were high generators of police and fire calls for medical emergencies. These are the toughest cases, requiring repeated effort, and setbacks are frequent. After checking each other for philosophical alignment, we realized we were results-driven individuals, admittedly from different backgrounds, but with similar aims. Jeff was able to see past the popular perception of me as a homeless-hater. I felt we needed to be effective with services provided, and work to end homelessness. The current direction felt like we were securing ever more rights for the homeless to remain homeless.

Jeff recognized there was a potential opening here to bring a partner to the table on working to end homelessness that had not previously been included: the business community. So he took the shot. I quickly recognized here was someone who knew where the holes were in the present system, and who was dedicated to ending homelessness, rather than perpetuating an industry around it. And Jeff had witnessed something we had not made public: a few of us working on Milpas had actively engaged in outreach, trying to understand the reason some of these people were on our streets, and then worked to help them out of homelessness. We achieved some results, largely by taking on the role of extended family member in encouraging them into services, and then trying to navigate them through that system. We fell into some holes, but found the Restorative Police to be a tremendous resource, as they knew where all the holes were, and were quite adept at maneuvering past them.

Jeff realized there was something to the businessperson’s typical results-oriented stance. Business people solve problems, on a deadline, within a budget. They want to see results. That kind of drive might prove very useful in a targeted outreach effort.

So over time, and a few more meetings, Jeff pulled the philosophy of working with the most chronically homeless out of the stratosphere and down to earth, into a narrowly scoped pilot program for Milpas: work with police and the Milpas businesses to identify the top five repeat offenders who cause the most issues, and move them into a more stable, sustainable living situation. Pull in the service providers, get them to move in one, coordinated direction, secure housing units, and work as a team with the business community to make this happen.

The businesses wanted something even more specific: move these five individuals out of homelessness in six months or less. That’s measurable.

The group was realistic. These are adults, with free will. Today they might agree to a program. Tomorrow they change their mind. They might commit, during a heartfelt outreach session, to getting sober overnight so as to get into a program. Five minutes later, they go into the nearest liquor store. They might get sober, and fall off the wagon a month later. They may tell us to go to hell when we approach. Often. Loudly.

This won’t be easy.

Reaching Out and Beyond
It felt somewhat surreal to be at a table with homeless activists and outreach specialists, listening to typical approaches used in reaching out to the homeless. We understood the need for confidentiality, but found it odd, given we knew the offenders firsthand from repeat interaction with them. Our tactics probably upset the services team. We’d take pictures of offenses, make citizens’ arrests, and state in no uncertain terms that we don’t tolerate drinking in public, using drugs on our corners, defecating and urinating on our community, passing out in our doorways or camping in our area. We take on the role of the annoying, pestering relative: you need to live a better life than this. This is unhealthy for you, and us.

The service providers’ initial reaction was one of shocked surprise, but they then surprised us in moving quickly to cooperation. They have the services and outreach workers, but we provided that business ‘shove’ – don’t just be friendly, caring and compassionate in your outreach. Make a connection you can leverage. Don’t take no for an answer, and hit the deadline. Achieve results.

Jeff would smile mirthfully in these sessions. He knew both groups well, and recognized there would be some inherent friction in mixing them. They’re not used to working together, and sometimes don’t even understand each other because they’re living in different worlds. But Jeff had long recognized that businesspeople and residents ARE affected by homelessness, and should be at the table. Jeff had the wisdom to see that there was opportunity for cross-learning here between the business community and the groups providing services and help for the homeless. He thinks, and I agree, that ultimately this is how homelessness is solved – a cross-sector comes together, as a community, to solve it, even if at the pace of one at a time, or in our case, five at a time.

If we are able to get these five worst offenders off Milpas, we’ll be significantly reducing police, fire and ambulance services to the area. Read Million Dollar Murray by Malcolm Gladwell to understand the impacts these individuals can cause to a community.

Because it’s a pilot, we’re keeping expectations low. The Milpas team wants to see reductions in homelessness in our community that are measurable. This is what C3H wants too, across our county, but by starting small, we’ll learn things. We’ll be able to see if we were successful, and perhaps repeat any successes we may obtain. Ninety percent of the partners in outreach services are willing to be coordinated in this effort, which is already progress.

However it turns out over the next 6 months, it won’t be a magic bullet, but rather a small step forward.

That’s the hope.


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