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Op-Ed: California State Senate supports ‘No Place Like Home’ initiative (Includes interview)

On Jan 4, members of the California State Senate held a press conference to announce the “No Place Like Home” initiative.

The bipartisan coalition wanted to alert the press that Monday to this first-of-it’s-kind comprehensive collaboration designed to help local communities meet the critical needs of the homeless in California. More than 40 speakers and representatives from State and local agencies voiced their concerns for the homeless at the The Star Apartments on East 6th Street in Los Angeles, an area known as Skid Row.

Mike Alvidrez, president of the Skid Row Housing Trust which owns and manages The Star Apartments, began the press conference by saying “permanent support of housing works and it saves money.” He mentioned that the SRH Trust has been working with the homeless for over 25 years and in its management of The Star Apartments and other properties, their approach has been homelessness is a reversible circumstance and that everyone in a community has a role to play in ending homelessness.

While the crowd that day at the press conference was primarily from Los Angeles and the surrounding area, at the heart of the press conference announcement was the entire State of California.

“Homelessness is a sad reminder of the stratified society we live in,” said California State Senator Kevin de Leon. He was among the first of the speakers. Serving as Senate President pro Tempore, he was surrounded at the podium by fellow State Senators, like John Moorlach, and many others.

He noted that as we see homeless everyday, everywhere, “California has the nation’s largest homeless population with over 114,000 people living without shelter. Ironically, this statistic sets a sharp contrast to California’s continued economic growth as California remains among the top ten highest ranking economy’s in the nation if not the world.”

Representing Los Angeles as a Democrat for the 24th California State Congressional District, de Leon considered the press conference announcement most appropriate. “Coming off the holiday season, I can think of no better way to start the legislative session than in Skid Row focused on lifting up those without voices in our political process.” He pointed to the “re-appropriating of Prop 63” as a way to distributing much-needed funds to the on-going issue of homelessness.

The California State Senate legislative package on homelessness re-purposes Proposition 63. Prop 63 from 2004 approved by voters is The Mental Health Services Act. This bond money, taken from taxes creatively leverages billions of additional dollars from other local, state, and federal funding to achieve the following goals.

“Prop. 63 is a 1 percent tax on those earning taxable income of one million dollars or more. This revenue stream is used to help those with mental illness,” said California State Senator John Moorlach. “But it must be for new programs and not to supplant or pay for existing programs.” He explained further to this reporter, “that a portion of this annual revenue stream can be used as security for a bond issuance and that the bond proceeds can be creatively leveraged for billions of additional dollars from, to help the homeless.”

The first would be the most pressing of needs, housing. The proposal is seeking, a $2 billion bond to construct permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless persons with mental illness. Both Alvidrez and de Leon, noted that people with mental illness are among the most underserved with regards to housing and other vital services.

Of that $2 billion, $200 million over 4 years will be distributed to provide supportive housing in the shorter-term, rent subsidies, while the permanent housing is constructed or rehabilitated.

Other special housing programs will be included in the proposal-package that will assist families and children; especially those families at risk who are in danger of homelessness.

And to help foster more autonomy and independence for those in need, the CA State Senate is proposing an increase in supplemental income. An increase in Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) program grants which provide income support for the aged, blind, and disabled poor who cannot work.
Rates of homelessness are higher for persons with disabilities who cannot work; SSI/SSP is intended to help them make ends meet, and a large portion of grants usually goes toward rent.
These increases will assist about 1.3 million low-income Californians. 72 percent of low-income people in the State of California have disabilities and 28 percent of the State’s low-income are elderly.

“This is a tipping-point moment for mental health, homelessness, and Proposition 63 in California.” said former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. He is co-author of Proposition 63 -The Mental Health Services Act (of 2004). And, he is founder The Steinberg Institute. “Thanks to the leadership of this Senate, we have a historic opportunity to help local communities forge systemic long-term solutions, making a real difference in the lives of thousands of forgotten Californians.”

By working together the entire California State Senate seeks to establish stable long-term solutions over “short-term fixes.” Focusing on a ‘housing first’ strategy, helps to stabilize society. By providing safe, secure housing creates an environment that allows for wrap-around services, such as mental health treatment, to take hold.

As de Leon, Moorlach and others point out, studies show homelessness aggravates mental illness. Homelessness makes it more difficult to reach and house those with the greatest need of shelter and treatment. Of the 28,200 chronically homeless in California, nearly 85 percent are unsheltered with this group absorbing the greatest amount of taxpayers’ resources, often toping $100,000 annually per person in public costs for emergency room visits, hospital stays, law enforcement, and other social services.

In addition to the outreach of the SRH Trust, local programs, such as Project 25 in San Diego, are successfully housing, treating, and transitioning chronically homeless clients back into society. Since 2011 Project 25 has been working to deescalate the homeless crisis. In a report composed by Keith Corry, then a housing analyst for the San Diego Housing Commission, “critics who dispute the claim that high user (outreach) programs result in cost savings since ERs will always be busy, and jails will always be full. However, Project 25 has already shown an ability to expand service delivery capacity by relieving the heavy use of services by a relatively small population.”

Corry’s report also noted. “In a time of constantly diminishing resources, we believe Project 25 proves that more compassionate and precise targeting of high volume users will result in more efficient and effective help for the chronically homeless population.”

Project 25 is a 3-year-pilot program funded by United Way of San Diego and the San Diego Housing Commission. The San Diego Housing Commission provided the federal housing vouchers, which were awarded to the non-profit by St. Vincent de Paul which uses the ‘housing first’ model as a means of intensive case management and delivery of psychiatric and medical care to several dozen clients. Project 25 is paying dividends for the taxpayers. In two years the annual public costs related to participants of Project 25 were reduced nearly 63 percent, to $1.6 million from $4.3 million.

The initiative would seek to help existing programs and work to expedite some of the most critical areas, especially at the grass-roots level.
Speaking on behalf of the San Diego Housing Commission, president and CEO Richard C. Gentry said in a statement to the press. “The “No Place Like Home” Initiative mirrors, what we are doing in the City of San Diego. Fourteen months ago, we launched the San Diego Housing Commission’s HOUSING FIRST-SAN DIEGO, three year Homelessness Action Plan, which invests federal, state and city resources toward preserving and creating permanent supportive housing to address homelessness. Whether it is a state initiative or a local initiative, he said, collaboration is the key.”

Then he also added, “The San Diego Housing Commission was a key collaborator of Project 25. We provided the federal housing vouchers, Gentry reiterated, which made this program possible.”

To help expedite the funding if the proposal is accepted and implemented, bonding this income stream would be sought. “Hypothecating a tax revenue stream is not uncommon,” said CA State Senator John Moorlach. He talked with this reporter after the press conference by phone the following day. “This practice is a way to securitize revenue quickly start on capital projects and has been done in Orange County.”

January 4  press conference at the Star Apartments in Los Angeles was sponsored by the California St...

January 4, press conference at the Star Apartments in Los Angeles was sponsored by the California State Senate. The “No Place Like Home” initiative was announced. This bipartisan effort wants to re-appropriate money by way of Prop 63 to help the homeless of California.
Courtesy of Skid Row Housing Trust and CA State Senate media dept.

When asked about the feasible aspect of diverting a portion of the taxes toward bond payments, Moorlach reiterated that it is a common routine, “utilizing 7 percent should be fine,” he said.

Asking if there might be a downside to any of this, Moorlach said, “it all depends upon how well-thought out the plans are. There are always details that must be reviewed carefully.” Moorlach mentioned that typically appropriations for the homeless in Orange County for example have ended up going to the county jail. “Because that is where the homeless end up,” he said. Especially with fewer and fewer facilities and outreach services to help, the last resort or catching net is jail or hospital.

Moorlach said he is eager to review all the details of the comprehensive first-of-its-kind legislative package. Even though this “No Place Like Home” initiative is a proposal, Moorlach along with his fellow State Senators is confident the bipartisan effort will be reviewed and considered; and hopefully, well-revived by both legislators and policy-makers. The biggest factors are how mentally ill residents in a new facility will be managed and treated and how will the ongoing annual costs be paid for. These critical ongoing costs need to be carefully reviewed as the State’s General Fund is fully spent out and the Governor is asking for more tax revenues for roads and general public health care.

For more information about “No Place Like Home Initiative” visit California State Senator Kevin de Leon’s web site.

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