Michael Heggarty: Homelessness in Nevada County | TheUnion.com

Michael Heggarty: Homelessness in Nevada County

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Michael Heggarty

Homelessness is a serious issue that affects the entire community. Since 2009 the Point in Time Homeless Count has averaged about 300 individuals per year. The 2017 count identified 371 people (though the actual number is likely higher), of which 15 percent were children.

Homelessness has profound impacts on the health and safety of those involved, and is often precipitated by problems that are within the power of our community to prevent and treat, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence, economic distress and availability of affordable housing. The effects on the community are also significant, including threats to public safety, wildfire danger, the environment, and more.

Although this problem is serious, it is also actionable, and the Nevada County Board of Supervisors prioritized addressing homelessness in its 2017 objectives. The Board placed particular emphasis on moving towards 24/7 shelter operations that support comprehensive services to help transition people to affordable, permanent housing. The Board also emphasized working with other jurisdictions and developers to facilitate development of Housing Element Rezone sites, which will increase the availability of affordable housing.

Our approach

The County has a multi-pronged approach to addressing this issue, including an evidence based strategy, collaboration with other organizations, and effective coordination of services.

The County's strategy is consistent with evidence collected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which identifies that the most effective and economical approach to homelessness is to rapidly place people in permanent and affordable housing, without preconditions, and then to connect them with crucial services. The Board and HUD do not recommend and will not fund campgrounds, tent cities, or tiny house villages, as these models have not been shown to be effective or economical in the long term. Instead, HUD recommends a continuum of care comprised of emergency and transitional shelter with the eventual goal of permanent housing. The County Behavioral Health and Social Services Departments utilize these principles as a guide for allocating resources, selecting contract providers, and partnering with community based organizations to address homelessness.

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To make this model a success, collaboration with other jurisdictions and community groups is crucially important. Of the 371 homeless identified during the 2017 count, 195 were in emergency shelters, such as Hospitality House, Salvation Army, Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Coalition, and hotels, all partly funded by the County and supported by a highly engaged community. However, as engaged as we are, the goal of connecting people to affordable housing is unrealistic if such housing doesn't exist. The County's collaboration will continue to include working with other jurisdictions, developers and the Housing Authority to identify sites that could possibly support affordable housing developments.

Strong leadership and coordination of services are also crucial to success. The Homeless Resource Council for the Sierras (HRCS) has issued a Request for Proposal to secure and locate new leadership to assist in overseeing the local continuum of care. Also, to provide stronger and more direct leadership, the county Health and Human Services Agency is hiring a Housing Resource Manager. This position will coordinate all County housing related services, and serve as a single point of contact to the many community based organizations that provide homeless services.

Next steps

Recent developments point toward a bright future. Supervisor Heidi Hall has convened a Public Agency Collaborative Committee made up of elected officials and law enforcement from Nevada County, Nevada City, Grass Valley, and Truckee. The initial startup meeting was held April 27. The meeting demonstrated a new level of enthusiasm, trust, cooperation and collaboration across public entities, which will improve efforts to reduce homelessness and benefit all of our residents.

The County is taking concrete steps to make our vision a reality, and is in ongoing discussions with Hospitality House to move forward on a 24/7 multi-services homeless center. Hospitality House already provides emergency shelter for 54 individuals each night, and has shown success in connecting many guests with services and permanent housing. We can build on that success and enhance outcomes by expanding services to include employment services, more rapid rehousing, behavioral health services, daily living skills training, faster access to public assistance, and medical assessment and referral services. The County is engaged in four state and federal grant proposals related to homeless outreach, affordable housing, rental subsidies, and direct treatment and supportive services to reduce and prevent homelessness.

To succeed, barriers will need to be overcome, including funding. We are investigating all funding options in the public, private and non-profit sectors, as well as pursuing multiple grants that show promise. Other barriers include lack of space for new programming, updating Use Permits, accommodating pets, and forging a more coordinated system with the County and other service providers. As a near-term alternative, our team is exploring leveraging service providers within walking distance of Hospitality House that could offer many of the expanded services listed above. This would move us forward and make an impact on reducing homelessness.

We believe that the approach of utilizing evidenced based practices, implementing a 24/7 multi-service homeless center, bringing in new leadership to the HRCS and Health and Human Services, and maximizing cooperation and effort by the County, cities, nonprofits, and the business community will make a significant impact on reducing and preventing homeless in Nevada County.

Michael Heggarty is the director of Nevada County's Health & Human Services Agency.

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