After Ending Veteran Homelessness, Riverside Looks to Help the Rest

The city of Riverside is hoping its “Housing First” model of eliminating veteran homelessness to help non-veterans secure housing. The city has about 400 people living on the street. Photo: iStock

Michelle Martinez, an Air Force veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, found herself homeless in 2011 after becoming the victim of a rental scam. The Riverside resident spent the next six years living with friends, and in shelters and motels.

Martinez, 45, was receiving Social Security Disability (Insurance) because of her PTSD, but “didn’t have the income to support myself or find new housing,” she said.

Today, Martinez is one of Riverside County’s success stories in its quest to help homeless residents rebuild their lives. In 2013, the County Board of Supervisors began a program to find permanent housing for every homeless veteran in the county. Since then, 1,100 homeless veterans have been placed into permanent housing, and last year, the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness named Riverside the first large county in California to end veteran homelessness. The county now operates at a “functional zero” status meaning that veteran homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring, and no veteran is forced to live on the streets.

Now the city of Riverside is hoping to use the same successful model the county used to help non-veterans secure housing. The city has about 400 people living on the street.

City officials said in March that they believe they can drastically reduce the number of homeless residents over the next 10 years using the approach, known as “Housing First” because it aims to house people before helping them find jobs or treating them for addiction, mental illness and other issues. Traditional homeless programs often require clients to undergo treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues before securing housing.

“You can’t solve homelessness without housing,” said Emilio Ramirez, director of the office of homeless solutions for the city of Riverside and a member of the new statewide Homeless Coordinating and Finance Council.

Homelessness is a statewide epidemic. According to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 40,000 veterans are experiencing homelessness nationwide, and about 9 percent of them are women. From 2016 to 2017, the number of homeless female veterans increased by 7 percent, compared to 1 percent for their male counterparts.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services estimated in 2017 that California had 134,278 homeless people total.

In 2016, California began requiring state agencies that provide housing or homelessness services to use components of “Housing First.” Partially as a result, communities across the state are implementing programs based on the approach, in an effort to help their homeless residents.

In May, a Marin County jury report endorsed the method and recommended the county provide the funding necessary for the program to succeed. Marin hopes to eliminate homelessness within the next four years.

And a report last year about Los Angeles County found that for every $1 spent on permanent supportive housing, the county government saved $1.20 in health care and other social services costs.

Some cities, such as Oakland, have taken a slightly different approach. Last December, Oakland opened its first safe-haven, city-sanctioned and operated homeless encampment. It features 20 modular units designed to hold 40 people for up to six months at a time, while helping them find jobs, social services and permanent housing. The city is working to add additional sanctioned camps.

Martinez, who was married last year, continues to reside in Riverside and says her county’s approach helped to rebuild her life.

A social worker found her a temporary home, and Martinez enrolled in the Veteran’s Administration’s rental assistance program.

“After three months, I was placed in my own apartment,” Martinez said. “The intense case management with my social worker, and going through Riverside County’s behavioral health peer employment training in 2015, helped make my recovery possible.”

Martinez is now employed with Riverside County, where she helps homeless people connect to housing support, as well as behavioral health and substance abuse services. Her PTSD symptoms are also stable, and she credits the housing and counseling she received with helping to make her recovery so successful.

“From my experiences, I learned that not everyone who has housing challenges are drug addicted, have mental health issues or have chosen to be homeless,” said Martinez, a former alcoholic who has been sober for seven years. “A majority lack the knowledge, and that is available to them from supportive agencies.”

The city of Riverside plans to construct a multi-family complex to house more homeless residents, but in the interim, the city is offering a financial incentive program to landlords who agree to rent to low-income residents, Ramirez said.

“Since March, we’ve identified seven landlords with 28 available units,” he said. “We have strict tenant rules and a new landlord liaison at the city who can answer any questions or concerns that landlords may have.”

Housing homeless residents should end up saving the city and taxpayers money in the long-term, Ramirez said. Residents with homes are less likely to use emergency services, such as hospitals, jails and emergency shelters, than those who are homeless.

Lynne Brockmeier, administrative services manager for Riverside University Health System’s behavioral health housing crisis response team, oversees outreach workers that go to the homeless encampments and work to connect people with housing, health care and substance-abuse programs. She said many of the team’s outreach workers are also military veterans.

“When you’re living on the street, people often lose hope, which makes change especially hard,” Brockmeier said. “We’re there to let them know we believe in them and that their lives can be different.”

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