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Herbert A. Opalek: Sleepless in Merced

Herb Opalek

This newspaper has devoted much of its recent space to reporting, editorializing and opining on issues of Merced's homelessness.

As a partial consequence, the Merced County Association of Governments -- led by a supervisor from each of the five county districts and an elected official from each of the six incorporated cities located within the county -- is in process of having a blue-ribbon panel fast-track this issue for the benefit of our county.

In order to highlight this discussion it seems helpful to define some of the vocabulary of homelessness so as to allow our concerned citizenry to be aware of the impacts and ramifications of this very important issue.

The U.S. Government Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 defines people as homeless when they lack a fixed, regular,and adequate nighttime residence or when their primary residence is a temporary place for people about to be institutionalized, any place not meant for regular sleeping accommodation by humans or a supervised temporary shelter.

There is no one typical homeless individual. Those who lack stable housing live in a variety of settings, both urban and rural, are a range of ages, face an array of health issues, arrived at this position for a variety of reasons and require an assortment of social work services.

Most of the people to be helped will be "chronically" homeless, which is defined as being disabled and either being continuously homeless for a year or more or having had at least four homeless episodes during the last three years.

Disabilities or disabling conditions often include severe and persistent mental illness, severe and persistent alcohol and/or drug abuse problems, and HIV/AIDS.

The emergence and strengthening of new and existing collaborative efforts to deal with this problem at all levels of government and among local providers and consumers is the distinguishing feature of the last decade of homeless assistance; and the increased emphasis on collecting and using data to better understand homelessness' dynamics helps synthesize research findings, assess what we know and outline what we still need to learn.

But we need to do better.

Here, in Merced, data provide needed information to allow our county and cities to receive available federal funding that will give us a better handle in dealing with our homeless.

Moreover, continued data at regular intervals are needed to track progress toward reducing homelessness.

There is a study in California that postulates that growing income inequality has contributed to homelessness.

The rapidly growing gap between the rich and the poor in California has been driven more by deteriorating incomes among the poor than by rising incomes at the top of the income distribution.

The result is that those whose incomes have fallen relative to others move out of better-quality housing, enter the lower quality market and bid up prices at the low end.

The resulting higher rents point out that there will be more homelessness, because those with very low incomes can not afford to rent.

Another major component of homelessness is one that we in the county do not pay enough attention to: A subset of the homeless includes former foster youth.

According to a recent study, within two to four years of exiting foster care, 25 percent of foster children experiences are out in the street.

Homelessness places youth at extreme risk of victimization and violence. When living in public places they are often victims of physical and sexual assaults and robberies.

Some youth are forced to engage in "survival sex" in exchange for shelter, food or money. In Merced, these emancipated youth have become fodder for our local gangs.

As we are living in a period of war and terrorism wherein American soldiers are put in harm's way; one would hope that our returning veterans will receive adequate services and not be a contributant to the homeless pool.

Yet, one-third of our homeless population are veterans.

Here is the California reality: There are 2,000 transitional beds provided nightly by the California Association of Veteran Service Agencies, yet on any given night up to 55,000 homeless veterans live on the streets and in shelters.

This means that, as many as 53,000 veterans, some with families, are without needed housing and supportive services. This is a shameful reward for our armed services personnel.

These are but a few of the facts that impact those who are sleepless in Merced. We need to "get off the stick" and deal with homelessness in an efficient and humane way.

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission. He writes a column every other Saturday.