2017-04-21 / Front Page

County sees drop in total homeless population

Simi Valley’s count comes in at 105
By Hector Gonzalez

A county program that helps struggling renters avoid eviction may have contributed to a more than 9 percent decrease in the region’s homeless population, the lowest number since officials first started counting people living on the streets and in shelters a decade ago.

Results from Ventura County’s annual survey of the region’s homeless population taken in January show 1,152 men, women and children were living on the streets or in shelters, 119 fewer than last year, an overall 9.4 percent decline from 2016.

A separate survey of homeless youths ages 18 to 25—this is the first year the county did a separate head count for that age group—found 25 homeless young adults, a majority of them male.

Oxnard had the highest number of homeless people in the county— 461—followed by Ventura with 301. More than 66 percent of the county’s total homeless population live in those two cities, according to this year’s report.

Simi Valley had the third-largest number of homeless people: 105, up six from last year. The change wasn’t dramatic, which is good news, said Betty Eskey, who heads the local nonprofit Samaritan Center, a homeless resource center.

“No drastic increases or decreases,” she said. “What we saw in the count showed that the homeless numbers are stabilizing somewhat.”

Volunteers in Thousand Oaks counted 102 homeless people, down from 104 last year. Twenty-seven homeless people were found living in Camarillo, up from 24 in 2016, and seven were counted in Moorpark, compared to four last year.

Families on the street

Fewer homeless families were found in this year’s count compared to last year, due in part to the county’s Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing program, said Jennifer Harkey, spokesperson for the Ventura County Continuum of Care Alliance, the umbrella agency for the county’s homeless services.

The program helps homeless individuals and families, or those at risk of becoming so, pay move-in costs, and also provides short-term rental assistance and credit counseling.

This year’s survey found 12 homeless families in the county, including one with one adult and three children that was chronically homeless. By comparison, last year’s count found 22 families, including two considered chronic.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronic homelessness as living on the streets or in an emergency shelter for the past 12 months continuously, or being homeless on at least four occasions in the past three years.

Last year’s count found 254 chronically homeless adults in the county, while this year’s survey counted 280 such individuals.

By contrast, nationally the number of chronically homeless men has fallen by 27 percent over the past decade as cities and counties have increased assistance to that group, the largest subgroup of homeless people in the country, said Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesperson in Washington, D.C.

The decline coincided with HUD’s push toward Housing First, a program that targets chronically homeless individuals who have problems such as substance abuse and mental illness, providing them with housing before other services.

“The aim is to get them into housing first, then stabilize them,” Sullivan said. “The data and the evidence show that (placing) them first in permanent supportive housing does work. So we’ve asked the continuum of care providers to move in that direction.”

Last year, the Ventura County Continuum of Care Alliance launched the Pathways to Home program, which connects homeless people and those at risk with housing programs that best meet their needs, said Tara Carruth, who heads the alliance.

As part of the homeless count report this year, the local Continuum of Care’s board of directors recommended the county work with community officials to increase permanent supportive housing in the cities, Carruth said.

Permanent supportive housing combines affordable housing, healthcare and support services.

Ventura County has 625 units of supportive housing, and 555 of the units are being utilized, leaving 80 available for the entire county, according to the county’s 2017 State of Homelessness report.

“The percentage of that population (chronically homeless individuals) has increased, but we haven’t increased the number of new (permanent transitional housing) units for those individuals,”

Carruth said. “Until we begin to focus on people who are disabled and with little income, the number of those people is going to continue to grow on the streets.”

Rent and income challenges

High rents and high-income requirements pose challenges for the county’s poorest residents. As of January, the average rent in the county was $1,822 a month for a three-bedroom apartment.

A family would need to earn $90,560 a year to afford that, the homeless report states.

Recent statistics from Cal Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting show that only 26 percent of the population in Ventura County—one in four people—can afford to buy a median-priced home in the county.

High rents and a lack of affordable housing usually contribute to homelessness, but that hasn’t been the case in the county.

The reasons aren’t easy to pinpoint, said Matthew Fienup, an economist and executive director of CERF.

From a peak of 2,193 homeless people in 2009, the number has fallen nearly every year by roughly 150 to 200 people. County officials skipped doing the count in 2008, the year the recession hit, but they have conducted it annually since 2009.

Fienup said he is somewhat skeptical about the homeless count’s accuracy. He said the survey represents a one-day snapshot of the region’s homeless population and is not a precise estimate.

Homelessness nationwide has declined since the 2008 recession, so Ventura County is no different in that respect, he said.

“Obviously, there are other explanations for what’s happening in the county, and one of them is that the farther we get from the recession the more that homelessness has declined overall, not only here but throughout the country,” Fienup said.

He said homeless people could be moving to other counties that are more affordable or provide more homeless resources.

Carruth also said that was a possibility.

“We do see sometimes some people in the community going to other counties for long-term care facilities that we don’t have here and not returning,” she said. “We also see that population aging more and becoming more open to accepting housing with family members.”

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