By Mary-Justine Lanyon
Despite the fact that California is spending more money than ever on homelessness, the numbers were up in the 2019 point-in-time count, mandated to be done at the end of January. In San Bernardino County, the numbers were up 23 percent.
That was a question posed by Paul Fournier, the housing navigator for the Mountain Homeless Coalition, at a presentation on Jan. 5 at the Lake Arrowhead Community Presbyterian Church.
The program was to have been given by Ron Griffin of The Chance Project but family illness prevented him from attending. Fournier stepped in.
The Chance Project, Daniel Pensabene, president of the coalition, explained, helped the mountain group get a HEAP (Homeless Emergency Aid Program) grant last July. The grant was for $200,000, which is awarded over a period of two years.
Since last July, the Mountain Homeless Coalition (MHC) has financially helped 51 households using those funds.
Sue Walker, the MHC vice president, noted that the requests for assistance have not slowed down this winter as they have in the past. In fact, 57 of the 124 requests they have received in the past six months came in November and December.
“We help those who are housed and about to lose their housing as well as those not housed,” Walker said.
So back to the question of why the numbers are up. Fournier said the county is getting better at the ways the homeless are counted; in last year’s point-in-time count, an electronic app was used for the first time.
In addition, Fournier noted, housing has become even less affordable and folks are having trouble maintaining a consistent income.
While a person used to be able to rent a room for $300 a month, now that person is lucky to find one for $500 or $600, he said. “That’s a problem when you have $900 a month coming in from Social Security,” Fournier said.
He pointed to three different types of homelessness: chronic, short-term and at-risk. The chronically homeless – those folks many think of when they think of the homeless – only account for 10 to 15 percent of the homeless population.
“We spend a lot of time on the at-risk,” Fournier said.
He related the tale of his first case, a veteran named Ron who had been homeless for three years. “It took me seven-and-a-half months and hundreds of hours to get him off the street,” Fournier said. “He taught Sunday school and was a scrub tech at Mountains Community Hospital. I related so well to him, I wouldn’t take no for an answer. It took two more months to get him the appropriate levels of case and medication management.
“It was miraculous,” Fournier said. “Within two weeks, he was caring about his family and cognizant of space and time in a way he had not been.
“Wouldn’t it be easier, more efficient and less expensive,” Fournier asked, “to get these folks off the streets before they are chronically homeless or even before they go on the streets?”
Two-thirds of the requests for assistance received by the MHC come from families with children; 55 percent of those are single mothers with children. And 81 percent of them have an income of $1,500 or less a month. With an estimated 40 percent of income for rent, they can’t find anything to rent for $600 a month.
The goal for their clients, Fournier said, is first and foremost to get them housed. But they also want to help make their clients whole, addressing mental health, addictions and physical health. They want their clients to be self-sufficient, whether they are employed, going to school or collecting disability. In addition, they want them to be both connected to the community and contributing to society. That connection can be through a church, a chess club or a civic organization.
“Without that connection and without giving back to the community, they will sink,” Fournier said.
No two cases are alike, he noted. “There is no typical client.”
One thing he learned with Ron is that “every client needs hand-holding – and a lot of it.
“Money alone doesn’t solve this problem. It requires time, concern, caring about the folks you interact with and a willingness to go above and beyond to do things for them that they won’t do – things a spouse or sibling would do.”
One of the common denominators among the homeless is they have lost their support system. Some, Fournier noted, “may have lit the match and burned the bridges.”
That’s where volunteer hand-holders can come in.
“We are used to doing things for ourselves on the mountain. We are used to being good neighbors. We don’t have a homeless problem like down the hill. We can solve this more completely and more compassionately if we put our minds to it,” Fournier said.
Anyone interested in being a hand-holder or wishing to volunteer in other ways with the Mountain Homeless Coalition should email Fournier at [email protected].