The San Benito County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved two proposals Nov. 17 to authorize the operation of an expanded winter shelter program for the homeless involving the coordination of San Benito County, the Farm Labor Association and the Homeless Coalition.
Together, the two propositions approve the sublease between the Farm Labor Association and the Homeless Coalition to operate the shelter, and authorizes the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) to operate the program from Dec. 2015 through March 2016.
Jim Rydingsword, director of HHSA, said the contract between the three parties is ongoing and needs board approval so the Homeless Coalition and Farm Labor Association can continue to work with HHSA to provide the winter shelter for the homeless. He referenced 2014 to explain how the program has evolved, saying that the Inter-Governmental Committee asked HHSA via the county to help “resolve the homeless issue.” He said he remembered at the time that “resolve” seemed to be an optimistic term because of the complexity of the problem.
“Of all of the human services issues we could have worked on as a community this is probably the most complex and probably raises the most feelings among people for all kinds of reasons,” he said.
Rydingsword said HHSA is working with consultants from California Community Economic Development Association (CCEDA) to identify other funding sources. He said that while money is an issue, he felt that the preferred approach in working on homeless issues within a community is “housing first,” which he said is a complex issue.
“It requires that you have some kind of resources to provide housing and underlying resources,” he said. “The underlying resources are already there in our department, in probation, in behavioral health. It’s just a matter of how to use those resources to support a strategy of ‘housing first,’ which also means you must be working on training and work programs.”
He described the last year and a half that HHSA has been working on the issue as an “interesting journey” of complex issues that are challenging to deal with, especially with the pending El Niño. The expansion of the winter shelter program, Rydingsword noted, may help deal with members of the homeless community who may be threatened or have issues because of the rain and cold.
“We want to continue working with our partners to make these things come forward, but this proposal doesn’t solve the problem. It addresses an issue that we may face this winter,” he said. “We have tried to look at all this issues and, short of an organization like the Homeless Coalition taking this on, which they have said they don’t want to, then we need to step up as Health and Human Services and make this happen. And that’s what this plan in front of you proposes to do over the next several months.”
Rydingsword said he hoped the board would find the political commitment and “stick-to-itiveness” to move the plan forward.
Supervisor Anthony Botelho said that after visiting another homeless shelter, his anxiety level about how to solve the homeless issue had only increased, and he questioned why an additional $200,000 and more space was needed if the migrant camp, which would serve as the homeless shelter, was often not being filled to maximum capacity.
“We know it hasn’t been at capacity in the past and we’re not sure what’s going to happen this winter, but we have over 200 chronically homeless people on the streets of San Benito County,” Rydingsword said. “If it becomes an emergency this winter, it could overwhelm the capacity. We’re trying to build something for the worst-case scenario. The downside is if the county and city as partners don’t work together on this and people are hurt in the process it could become a bigger problem.”
Supervisor Margie Barrios reminded Supervisor Botelho that the issue is preparedness.
“In the past a lot of our homeless community was more city-situated and they were moved from this area and they ended up down in the river,” she said. “If we have the rains and flooding that is expected, we are going to have to react. This is a proactive approach to address what could possibly be a very difficult emergency situation.”
She said she had attended the city council meeting on Nov.16 and said the city shares the same concerns about what happens to the money if the shelter is not filled to capacity. She said that issue would be discussed at a later time, and if it isn’t used the board will need to reconvene to determine what to do with it.
“They (the city) put up $47,000 out of their general fund and it was a 5-0 vote with reservations because it’s coming out of their reserves,” she said. “While they have the same concerns, they stepped up to the plate.”
Botelho expressed his concern that the additional homeless who would be staying at the shelter might not understand the current rules of sobriety that those who already are there have agreed to abide by.
Rydingsword said the new plan is modeled after the current plan so the same rules would apply to new residents, but added the rules weren’t part of the philosophy of the "housing first" solution.
“You deal with people where they are and help them where they are,” he said. “From a social worker perspective, I would prefer the ‘housing first’ approach, but we’re not there yet. So we need to operate under the rules that we have been in the past, hopefully with some flexibility.”
Botelho wondered if there was any anticipation of resistance to the rules from the people who live in the river when they come to the shelter, and what would happen. Barrio said that anyone who would not obey the rules would be asked to leave the shelter.
Rydingsword related that Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez had visited the homeless encampment and said there was a level of concern about what might happen to them. He said his staff has been proactively working with the homeless to find solutions to issues they have.
“This is a difficult community to work with; not because they’re difficult people, but because they’re in difficult circumstances,” Rydingsword said.
Botelho asked if the Homeless Coalition was not willing to expand its operation what sort of coordination would there be between the two programs operating in the same area. Rydingsword said HHSA would coordinated its efforts with the Homeless Coalition or any other entities providing services at the shelter.
“We would prefer to have a unified program up there, but the Homeless Coalition felt they didn’t have the capacity to do it. And I respect that,” he said.
Supervisor Robert Rivas asked Rydingsword if he thought the $200,000 would be adequate and if it were to be exhausted who would pick up the additional cost. Rydingsword answered that when departments propose budgets they should be prepared to live within them. He said it seemed like a reasonable and adequate budget.
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz sought clarification that the budget proposal being presented at the meeting was for the extended shelter program and asked if it is on top of the one being used by the Homeless Coalition (with a $150,000 grant). Rydingsword said he wouldn’t describe the proposed budget as being "on top" of the Homeless Coalition’s budget, but said he hoped they would work in conjunction with each other. De La Cruz asked if the budget was being driven by the potential of 40 more homeless people coming to the shelter, in addition to the 26 that the Homeless Coalition was serving. Rydingsword said it was.
“By the last count there are about 40 people down at the river,” Rydingsword said. “But there are other people in the community who will be impacted this winter. So, having a larger capacity puts us in the best position of being prepared to deal with the homeless community during a very tough winter.”
De La Cruz said Velazquez told him the night before that if the rains do come as expected, the homeless will be offered services at the shelter, and once they’ve left the river encampment the city will clean up the camp and post "no trespassing" signs.
“No one on the council debated what the mayor said, and to me that means everybody is onboard and they’re trying to address the issue for the homeless at the river by providing them a facility,” he said.
“That was the first time I’ve heard that and it underscores the need for partnerships between the city and the county at the political level to move it forward,” Rydingsword said.
De La Cruz also wanted to know if there were any reciprocal requirements in securing the funding from the state. Rydingsword said the major requirement was that the funds be used to focus on a community that has medical issues, which raised more concerns on De La Cruz’s part about the possibility that the state might determine in the future that whatever the money was spent on did not qualify and the county would be held accountable.
“We said from the very beginning we intend to use this money for the homeless community, which have significant medical issues,” Rydingsword said.
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer asked that Mindy Sotelo, executive director of the Farm Labor Association, come to the podium and personally verify that beds are available for the extended winter project.
“We allocated 40 beds for that unit and 28 for the Homeless Coalition,” she said.
De La Cruz wanted to be assured that there would be no conflicts when migrant workers come back to the shelter.
“Our existing contract expires Nov. 30, and then we don’t have new contracts with farm workers until March 31,” Sotelo said. “That being said, if there’s some fluke thing where a hundred migrant workers needed someplace to stay, we’d have to evaluate it at that time. The camp was built with state funds, so it’s a priority that migrant workers have a place to stay. I don’t foresee that problem, at this time.”
De La Cruz and Barrios asked for more clarification about how medical services would be provided. Rydingsword said that HHSA, as an agency, doesn’t provide medical services, instead, it primarily serves the homeless by directing them to Medical.
Pat Loe, with the Homeless Coalition, wanted to explain the board’s assertion that the organization did not want to expand its program.
“The reason we’re not taking on this project is because for the minimum amount of security that we felt comfortable with would cost $90, 000,” said the former county supervisor. “You have $26,000 in the budget. Safety is our No. 1 issue. I think your security is really underestimated.”
De La Cruz asked, “Why do you think $28,000 is not enough? And how did you come up with that figure?”
“Because of the way the rooms are configured and the difference between their program and our program, we figured we need two security guards per shift,” she said. “With our program, the rooms are open and the staff is in there all the time. With this new program there’s no way to retrofit the building and it will allow four clients per room, and open to the other side (of the building). We felt it would be easy for contraband to come in after they’ve been searched because they can leave by the back side where no one can see them.”
Muenzer asked her if she thought the two programs could work together.
“I want to commend the county and I think they’ve done a great job anticipating and trying to work through a problem, but it goes back to the new clients and maybe their resistance to this kind of program” she said. “The people we have coming to our program know the program and understand that they’re not allowed to stay if there’s a problem. If you’re bringing up 40 people who haven’t been involved in that before, security is key, is all I can say.”
Ray Bonilla, executive director of Marina Community Homeless Solution, said he operates on a budget of less than $100,000 and that his security budget is zero because the staff is trained to deescalate situations. He said nearby churches regularly feed those staying at the shelter, so he has no budget for food either.
“If the county takes on this project then I strongly encourage the revisiting of some of that budget,” he advised. “We did tell the city and the county that if we were going to be providing the services then the City of Salinas police would have to be available when we need them. In the last three years we’ve only had one fight; otherwise, most of the situations are easy to handle.”
Bonilla said he strongly supports the budget, but said he added that if no expectations were expressed to the clients the beds will be filled, but if rules and behavioral expectations are in place fewer beds will be filled.
Before the final vote was cast to approve the plan, De La Cruz commented that he sees the plan as an opportunity to go into a new direction, stating that he still has some lingering issues with security costs and the possibility that the state may challenge payments based on the medical requirement.
“I just want to provide a service to the community,” he said. “Let’s move forward. And you know what, if the waters don’t come, fine. But we still have the money available. We have to plan for next year because the Homeless Coalition already gave us notice that we need to do something because they can’t. It’s a short-term fix that we really need to address long-term.”