Merced project aims to match homeless with housing

Robert McKeever, 50, goes through some of the items he pushes around in a shopping cart. A new effort from the Continuum of Care, called Project Housed, will look for ways to find housing for the homeless in Merced County.
Robert McKeever, 50, goes through some of the items he pushes around in a shopping cart. A new effort from the Continuum of Care, called Project Housed, will look for ways to find housing for the homeless in Merced County. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Every afternoon around 3 o’clock, a handful of homeless men line up to use the shower at the Merced Rescue Mission.

Each of them has a story about why they’re on the street, but one thing is for certain, “Nobody wants to be out here – not one of us,” Gary Ries, 55, said.

Ries said he’s on the street after losing his job as a mechanic when he injured his neck and could no longer work.

He’s one of the 768 homeless people in Merced County, including 21 children, according to January’s 2014 Homeless Count and Survey from the Merced County Continuum of Care. Organizers hope a new program can put a significant dent in the number of people living on the street.

The new effort, called Project Housed, is based on a program that showed some success in Pasadena by assessing resources before targeting specific subpopulations of homeless people. Project Housed plans a two-hour meeting for the assessment at 1 p.m. Monday in the Sam Pipes room of the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St.

Urban Initiatives, a nonprofit hired to administer the Continuum of Care, will oversee the new effort.

The survey from January identified many of the subgroups that could be targeted. For example, 22 people reported having HIV or AIDS, 291 reported a mental illness, 298 reported a physical disability and 45 said they were veterans, and that’s just a few of the subgroups.

Joe Colletti, the executive director of Urban Initiatives, said the assessment meeting is important, because it keeps the different nonprofits, businesses, churches and other groups who help the homeless from spinning their wheels.

The assessment will give them a chance to see the resources available and match them up with the homeless population. It’s a reversal of the traditional method of building a relationship with a homeless person and then trying to find the housing, he said.

The meeting will also show where the county has shortcomings and where it needs to put future funding. “If you are going to literally end homelessness in your community, you have to have the resources to do that,” Colletti said.

The city of Merced has 78 percent of the homeless population in the county, or 476 people. No. 2 on the list is Los Banos, with 14 percent of the population, or 88 people.

The Rev. Steve Hammond routinely volunteers to be part of the homeless count in Los Banos and runs meal programs for the homeless out of his church, Bethel Community. He said he is optimistic about the chances for the new effort to add housing on the West Side.

Hammond said he realizes that funding is tight, but he wants to be ready if it becomes available. So he’ll be at next week’s meeting. “We want to be there at the table so the day that (money is available), then that door does open up for us,” he said.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that a vacant 5,000-square-foot property at 745 W. J St. in Los Banos is suitable to assist the homeless. Hammond said the building, which has been through a fire and has some asbestos, would be expensive to rehabilitate.

A longtime homeless encampment in Los Banos will have to be cleared out in the next couple of months, he said, as crews will be readying the grounds for the new $32.2 million Los Banos courthouse, set to be finished by May 2015.

Several other homeless advocates and nonprofits are expected to be at next week’s meeting as well.

Jeanette Garcia, the Continuum of Care administrator, said the meeting is open to anyone. Representatives from HUD, California Department of Housing and Community Development and U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness will be a part of the meeting, she said, either in person or on speaker phone.

Having federal and state representatives involved in the process is “a good sign,” she said. HUD is responsible for about $500,000 in funding for homeless programs in Merced County.

Project Housed is a long-term program and could work slowly. “We’re trying to grab up a certain subpopulation, but sometimes it just comes down to one at a time,” Garcia said.

For more on the Project Housed meeting, email Garcia at jeanettegarcia@urban-initiatives.org or visit www.mercedcoc.com.