Throwing a Housing Lifeline to the Homeless

At the Henderson House apartments in San Clemente.
At the Henderson House apartments in San Clemente. Photo by Jody Tiongco.

Maybe you know of a family with a son or daughter diagnosed with a disabling mental condition, such as adult onset schizophrenia. They likely have described their difficulties finding effective medication, and the remote possibility of their 20-something ever carving out an independent life away from home. Consider the foster child in similar straits and aged out of the system and without family support. Where do they go?

If they are lucky, an organization like Laguna Beach’s Friendship Shelter may soon toss them a life preserver. Thanks to $425,000 in federal Housing and Urban Development funding awarded last year, the Friendship Shelter will be able to offer 32 chronically homeless individuals in southern Orange County permanent housing and services.

Along with their new digs, the previously homeless residents will also receive visits from a case manager and program manager to work with them to ensure a successful arrangement, hence the “supportive housing” label, explained Friendship Shelter’s Executive Director Dawn Price.

“This project is going to end homelessness for 32 people, and that’s very exciting,” said Friendship Shelter’s associate executive director Mark Miller, whose job duties now include scouting for appropriate rental units.

Excluding the Friendship Shelter’s nascent effort, 1,483 individuals currently reside in permanent supportive housing in Orange County. The need is far greater. A rough census conducted by a county agency estimates that 4,251 people were homeless in the county on a typical night last year.

Finding apartments that fit HUD guidelines for fair market value (generally about $1650 per month for a two-bedroom apartment) in high-demand south-county is a daunting task, Miller said. “It’s a lot of looking, a lot of working and a lot of negotiating,” he said.

A deal struck on the first apartment lease will allow the first two clients to move into their new home shortly, and applications have been submitted for some others, said Miller.

Recipients of grant services must have a disabling condition and have either been homeless for over a year or homeless at least four times in the past three years. HUD defines a disabling condition broadly as limiting one’s ability to work or perform daily activities, based on substance abuse, mental illness, developmental disability, chronic illness or a combination of these conditions.

Most of the chronically homeless disabled clients Friendship Shelter staff contacts receive a minimal monthly social security check, that can be as low as $600, often their only income, Miller said. “You can’t even pay rent with that,” he pointed out, besides pay for food, transportation or medical needs. Clients they house will contribute up to one third of their income to their own rent, he said.

In selecting beneficiaries for the program, Friendship Shelter administrators will look first at clients they already have a relationship with. These include regulars at the homeless shelter in Laguna canyon managed by Friendship Shelter staff as well as people in its own self-sufficiency programs in Laguna Beach and San Clemente, said Price. Professionals will evaluate potential candidates to assess their disability and their level of vulnerability, and give priority to the most vulnerable, provided they are fit to live with a roommate, she said.

Some of the chronically homeless, though, are unable to live with others, and HUD funding won’t cover studio arrangements. In a separate initiative, Friendship Shelter is currently in negotiations with the city of Laguna Beach over construction of permanent housing suitable for such individuals, said Price, who was unwilling to comment on the proposal’s details.

Even so, Price has discussed such a concept with various groups at least since June 2012, but the idea apparently has progressed beyond the talking stage. Last week, the City Council extended a contract with a consultant to evaluate a proposed supportive housing plan at the site of the current homeless shelter, 20652 Laguna Canyon Road.

Fourteen of the 32 individuals Friendship Shelter expects to offer housing under the HUD grant will be accommodated in its Henderson House apartments in San Clemente. Some renovations are required and administrators are seeking funding to cover the costs. Once ready, the units will be offered to 18 to 25 year olds coming out of foster care.

“It’s a resource that’s needed in the county, and it’s often a population that gets overlooked,” said Robert Theemling, chief programs officer for Orangewood Children’s Foundation. The nonprofit helps abused and neglected children as well as foster teens transitioning to adulthood.

Because they’re young, people think they should be able to take care of themselves, Theemling commented. But when a disabling illness like adult onset schizophrenia strikes, those without family support lack a safety net, he said.

Julia Bidwell, deputy director of Orange County Community Services, said the HUD grant to the Friendship Shelter fits in with county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, an initiative of the department’s Commission to End Homelessness.

The HUD money in question had initially been awarded to the Irvine-based nonprofit Families Forward, which assists families in financial crisis, Bidwell explained. When officials realized they couldn’t carry out the mission, the Friendship Shelter stepped in and convinced HUD to fund their plan instead. While HUD works directly with the individual agencies, Bidwell said the commission acted to ensure that the HUD funds remained in Orange County.

Data on the county’s homeless population is gathered through a HUD-approved “point-in-time” method where volunteers fan out across the county to literally count the homeless people at various locations on a given night. Based on that method, the census exceeds 4,200 people, Bidwell said.

While it is unclear how many homeless people are candidates for supportive housing, clearly the number of candidates surpasses available units. The soon-to-be provided units by the Friendship Shelter will make a difference to 32.








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