Merced County’s first homeless summit, what amounted to equal parts educational seminar, church service and pep rally, took place Friday in Merced.
The summit gathered homeless advocates and service providers together with elected officials and public employees inside an Olive Avenue church. The Merced County Continuum of Care, a coalition of homeless advocates and service providers, released a report on the homeless count done in January and heard from Fresno-based public employees who say they’ve made inroads in reducing the homeless population there.
Speakers at the event at the Christian Life Center stressed that Merced needs to adopt the “housing first” method that has been successful in other communities. Under that method, people living on the street are found a home before their mental health, substance abuse or other problems are addressed.
“The data shows that permanent supportive housing … has a lower recidivism rate than any other approach,” said Preston Prince, CEO of the Fresno Housing Authority. “I want to stress, housing first is the way to go.”
Programs in Fresno provide housing for more than 18,000 people and families, according to the authority. The homeless count in Fresno has fallen from 5,000 in 2010 to 1,200 in the latest count, according to Prince.
The data shows that permanent supportive housing … has a lower recidivism rate than any other approach. I want to stress, housing first is the way to go.
Preston Prince, CEO of the Fresno Housing Authority
Those numbers dwarf the Merced County tally of 519 this year, a 42 percent drop from 899 counted last year. Advocates said they’ve had some success in housing people in Merced, but the dramatic drop also reflects a new counting method.
To replicate Fresno’s falling count, Merced will look to double its 47 permanent supportive housing beds, according to Carol Bowman, executive director of United Way of Merced County and a member of Continuum’s board of directors.
“We desperately need more permanent supportive housing units,” she said. “We are aggressively pursuing more.”
Bowman said advocates have begun to speak with landlords to try to warm them to the idea of renting to people trying to get off the street.
An initiative launched by the White House in 2009 to end homelessness among veterans has led to success in many parts of the country, with places such as Houston, New Orleans and the state of Utah declaring they’ve housed their homeless veterans.
Merced County hasn’t yet been able to claim victory, but the 25 homeless veterans found during this year’s census was an improvement from last year’s 88. The tally also found no homeless people who are infected with HIV or AIDS, while last year 26 were counted.
We desperately need more permanent supportive housing units. We are aggressively pursuing more.
Carol Bowman, executive director of United Way of Merced County
About half of the county’s homeless population is chronically homeless and has a chronic health condition or mental health problems, or both.
The report Friday revealed city-specific numbers for people on the streets, not including those in temporary housing, which amounts to 356. The city of Merced had 218 people living on the streets, while Los Banos had 64. Dos Palos and South Dos Palos counted 41; Atwater and Winton tallied 28; and Le Grand recorded five.
The tally every January breaks up homeless people into demographics to make the goal seem less daunting, said Joe Colletti, executive director of Urban Initiatives, the nonprofit that contracts with the county to organize homeless efforts.
“If we begin to break it down not only by jurisdiction but by demographics, all of a sudden the numbers become more manageable,” he said.
While attempting to educate the public on the work being done in the county and thanking homeless advocates, the summit’s speakers also tried to rally the crowd to continue their work to end homelessness. Cynthia Abbott, San Francisco field office director of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, praised local advocates for their progress in housing veterans.
“(You’re) bringing us closer to that day when every American can have a place to call home,” she said.
Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453,