It’s that time of year again. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is busy tabulating the nation’s official homeless count following January’s nationwide one-day point-in-time count, a task it has undertaken since 1987. Required by HUD and reported to Congress, the homeless count is planned, coordinated, and carried out locally by volunteers armed with questionnaires and sometimes “thank-you” gifts for participants (like Safeway gift cards). The volunteers fan out on a single night during the last week in January to count homeless persons living within five HUD-defined program types: emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, safe haven, or permanent supportive housing. In real-speak that means homeless folks living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, in cars or vans, under the freeway, along creek beds, or in any of the many other places they bed down on a cold January night. For 2017 the nationwide homeless count was 553,742, or 17 out of every 10,000 persons in the country. In Mendocino County the number is much higher. Once counted, the numbers are broken down into the many categories that make up the final HUD report including: men, women, children, race, veterans, and the chronically homeless, to name a few. The 2017 national numbers increased from 2016, driven largely by dramatic increases in the number of homeless in California.
The Mendocino County portion of the 2017 report, conducted with the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, revealed, in a nutshell, that more than a thousand nearly all white adults were homeless a single January night in 2017. The numbers, on their own, look like little more than data points, but they become key components of the funding that ultimately determines what’s available locally to help the county’s homeless. “They help get grants and funding from state and federal governments,” explained former homeless Ukiah resident and long-time volunteer Don Damp, who added that grants are another important part of local funding as well as contributions by non-profits, individual churches, and other community groups that provide shelter, food, and clothing.
How you feel about the homeless probably tracks fairly closely with how you feel about government social programs in general. The spectrum stretches all the way from taxpayers who believe that poor children shouldn’t receive subsidized school lunches to über libs who believe that the government should bear the primary responsibility ─ and pay for ─ generous tax-funded social services. Damp definitely falls into the second group. “If the government can’t provide housing, clothing, and medical care, what good is the government?” he asked, rhetorically. He talked about a recent example that still angers him in the telling. He says he found a shelter bed for a parolee released on a cold weekend morning after serving a five-year sentence in a state prison. “He was released with a toothbrush, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and tennis shoes.” Nothing else. “The prison’s attitude was ‘You should be happy, you’re free,’” he said. Damp uses the example to illustrate a breach of what he thinks every human being is entitled to: life’s physical requirements and human dignity.
But now there’s a new kid in town, Marbut Consulting, which appears to fall more cleanly into the tough-love group, less concerned with providing services than establishing stick-and-carrot accountability for homeless individuals. Despite years of effort to ease the problem and still frustrated with the county’s intractable and growing homeless dilemma, the county hired Marbut to take a fresh look at Mendocino County’s homeless situation. Marbut’s Homeless Needs Assessment and Action Steps for Mendocino County, Presentation of Observations, Findings and Recommendation of Strategic Action Steps will be formally presented to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors on March 13 and live-streamed to Willits and Fort Bragg from the Ukiah Valley Conference Center from 5:30 to 8:30 pm on March 15. Residents will be able to write down their questions for presenters.
Unfortunately (in the humble opinion of this reporter), the first page of the Marbut assessment draft is devoted to trash-talking the long-standing point-in-time homeless counts, which have been the only game in town. Seems like a down note to kick off a new program. The introduction goes on to describe Marbut’s perceived failings of the annual count, citing examples of including vehicles counted instead of individuals, extreme good or bad weather on the night of the count, safety and police engagement, and a general lack of “rigorous data modeling.” Marbut’s own surveys were conducted between December 13 and 20 of last year and, according to the draft, “were specifically designed to focus on issues relating to individuals experiencing street level homelessness within Mendocino County,” as opposed to the point-in-time counts it claims are designed to “address HUD oriented issues and include many different sub-group populations.” Marbut sees these methodologies as light-years apart in their goals, their measurements and, ultimately, their effectiveness (or lack thereof). The Marbut assessment does not cover the county as a whole, as the point-in-time count does, but rather focuses on Ukiah, Willits, Fort Bragg (the areas with the great majority of the homeless), and the areas surrounding those cities that are close enough that individuals use the cities’ homeless services.
District Two Supervisor John McCowen, who represents the greater Ukiah area and devotes some of his own personal time to helping the homeless, said he’s optimistic about the Marbut assessment and praised its goals and methodology. “It’s the first time the county has done this kind of assessment,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a broad-based community discussion. Ideally there will be a broad consensus of what needs to be done.” McCowen noted that, complicating the issue, “With 90% of the county’s homeless, homelessness itself is not the number-one problem; it’s substance abuse and mental illness.” This reality prompts another series of questions. How exactly should the responsibility for solving these thorny problems be divvied up between the individual and the services provided to help him or her? Then perhaps the hardest question of all, aside from paying for anything new, is how do you move the Entitlement Elephant hunkered down in the middle of the room? “In giving away goods and services are we helping end homelessness or enabling it?” McCowen mused. How do you figure out who actually prefers the so-called homeless “lifestyle” and who is willing to undertake the long and difficult journey back from the brink of addictions and mental illness that made them homeless in the first place? Digging even deeper, how do you identify and assess the needs of homeless people in the middle, who fall somewhere between those two camps? Does providing services to everybody out there help or hinder? If there were easy answers to these questions there would be very few homeless on the county’s streets instead of their growing number every year.
What we’re confronting here are opposing philosophies. If the local point-in-time volunteers and those running the shelters, kitchens, and other services look to Mother Teresa for inspiration, The Marbut assessment looks to boot camp. According to its website, the Marbut “method” is based on “The Seven Guiding Principles of Transformation – Moving from Enablement to Engagement.” The concept of transformation is a big deal these days, and businesses are unsurprisingly capitalizing on its new popularity. Previously confined to spiritual awakenings and measurable scientific changes, the Business Dictionary today defines transformation as a process of profound and radical change that orients an organization in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness. Unlike ‘turnaround’ (which implies incremental progress on the same plane), transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure. It’s the good ol’ “carrot and stick” approach; if you’re good you get rewarded, if you’re bad you don’t. As just one example, Marbut’s Principle Number Six states in part that, however well intended, “External activities such as ‘street feeding’ must be redirected to support the transformation process.” Damp scoffed at that. “People used to put up signs in the forest – ‘Don’t feed the animals or they’ll be dependent.’ They’re trying to assign the same approach to humans. Drug addiction and mental illness are not reasons to deny a human being food, shelter, and clothing.” This is the first time I have heard of “feedings” for adults, a term more typically associated with infants and zoo animals, and we don’t know how exactly an item like this would or could be incorporated into the assessment’s recommendations, if supervisors vote to adopt them.
But one thing is clear: the Marbut assessment, if adopted and approved in some form by the Board of Supervisors, will mark a philosophical fork in the road from the fragile but consistent existing web of shelters, kitchens, churches and other organizations that somehow manage to keep many of the county’s homeless off the streets and in shelters and kitchens every day and replace it with something entirely different based on personal responsibility and behavioral change. Marbut lays out a detailed blueprint that outlines a philosophy and recommended program to transform the county’s homeless men and women into new, improved, employed versions of themselves. But with some 80% of the county’s homeless suffering from addictions or mental illness and nearly 90% unemployed in a county with few jobs for the unskilled, its execution will not be easy – or inexpensive, for that matter. The degree to which those on the street can be nudged toward a mainstream life of jobs and responsibilities is a walk into the Great Unknown. And if they don’t take that nudge, the old questions will still be there: do the homeless deserve shelter, food, and clothes? Some say yes, some say no. It’s back to the hot debate over entitlements and what the government should or should not do for the homeless. In considering the county’s future direction, it’s a question that must be asked and answered. Because everyone thinks something has to be done.
Damp says it’s important to have hope, and says he’s looking forward to hearing about the Marbut assessment and having the opportunity to ask specific questions of the presenters. “Assigning blame does not solve the problem,” he said. “You’re just complaining if you don’t have a solution.” He also says that, whatever changes the future brings, it’s essential that supervisors focus on what’s really important. “Drug addiction and mental illness are not reasons to deny a human being shelter and clothing. One day it could be one of them.”
Whatever philosophy drives the county’s future homelessness policy, it eventually comes down to the nuts and bolts of what happens on the street; if you’re homeless there’s always the next day and night to live through, another day to find someplace to eat and a pillow to lay your head. Places like Fort Bragg’s Hospitality House, where Leann, who lost her trailer in Covelo a year ago, said she appreciates the respect she gets at Hospitality House and the chance to take a shower. And Ukiah’s winter shelter, where Sage Wolfe runs both the shelter and Redwood Community Services. Wolfe says the shelter runs on a code of tolerance, safety, and mutual respect. It’s a damp shelter, meaning that you can stay there under the influence but can’t use while you’re there. “We try to erect as few barriers as possible between a person and shelter,” she said. For Wolfe, who comes by every night on her own time to visit with the shelter’s residents, her work is a true calling. “When I come at night I see how residents team up and support each other, their generosity. It’s inspirational for me.”