Knocking Down Silos or Tilting at Windmills?

Can Roger Heroux Fix What Ails the County’s Homeless Services?

When Roger Heroux walks down State Street these days, he doesn’t pay much attention to the $30 million new parking garage sprouting up by the Granada Theatre or the chichi boutiques selling $350 jeans. He’s too busy worrying about the clerks working in Santa Barbara’s many tourist shops. “How many T-shirts do you have to sell to afford State Street rents?” Heroux wonders. “And what kind of wages can the owners afford to pay their workers?” Heroux knows that this county’s growing legion of low-wage service workers live just one hard-luck story away from the streets. If and when the bad times come, Heroux fears these workers will join the 6,000 homeless men, women, and children who now call Santa Barbara County home. And when that happens, they’ll become his worry. That’s because last Tuesday, all five county supervisors voted to yank the 64-year-old Heroux out of a happy retirement by crowning him Santa Barbara’s first homeless czar. As such, it will fall to Heroux to tame the county’s hydra-headed bureaucracy and create sanity and synergies among the six individual departments now spending millions of dollars a year on homeless services with little heed to what each other is doing. To this end, Heroux — who speaks with a noticeable stammer and an unmistakable New England accent — talks of “breaking down the silos” that separate departments and impede cooperation. It is an assignment fraught with institutional challenges. “Even though I know the system very well,” said Heroux, who has spent more than 35 years working with the poor of the county, “I will hit some walls.” When that happens, what then? “I need to speak from the heart,” he said. Underdog Story The son of a Rhode Island factory worker, Heroux describes himself as a lifelong champion of the underdog. As a child he was teased because of his stutter, so he gravitated to sports, where he didn’t have to speak. Standing only 5´6˝, he nevertheless won a starting spot on his high school and college basketball teams. From a devout French-Canadian Catholic family, he at first thought he wanted to be a priest, attending the seminary for a number of years; but he finally quit, joined the Air Force hoping to avoid Vietnam, and ended up at Vandenberg. After his service, he stayed in the county, and began working for the Community Action Commission as an anti-poverty warrior and organizing field workers in Guadalupe. He married Consuela Morales, from a third-generation Santa Maria family, with whom he raised their three sons. Today, he serves on the board of Casa Esperanza — Santa Barbara’s homeless shelter. And for a nine-month, eye-opening stint, he actually ran the place. But Heroux’s real edge comes from his personal experience in the belly of the county’s bureaucratic beast. From 1987 to last January, Heroux worked at the county’s Public Health Department, a sprawling agency with 550 employees, a $74 million budget, and duties ranging from bio-terrorism protection to flu shots. For the last 10 years he was the department’s chief. As a departmental head, Heroux was better known as a consensus builder than a backroom brawler. According to his admirers, Heroux was blessed with the rare gift of making people actually want to do their jobs well. He also commanded respect. “He just overwhelmed you with his sincerity, his intelligence, and his commitment,” explained assistant county executive Jim Laponis. That’s a trait that will help when Heroux sits across the table from administrators now running the county’s four social service agencies, the jail, and the probation department — most of whom he’s worked with before — to discuss the prickly issues of services duplication, interdepartmental communication gaps, and shortages of such essential services as mental health beds, a detox facility (200 beds are needed), and transitional housing for people ready to move out of shelters. Within the year, he must present before the board a newly streamlined, more effective plan to help end homelessness in Santa Barbara County. Heroux brought this challenging assignment on himself when he startled Mike Brown, the county’s omnipotent administrative executive, and the supervisors with his recent report. It showed public and private agencies in Santa Barbara County spending $36 million a year in homeless-related services. Even Heroux was surprised. “That’s a lot of money,” he exclaimed. The problem isn’t simply expense. It’s the lack of results. Homeless people rotate from the streets to jail to the emergency rooms and back again. “Some people get helped,” he said, “but not nearly enough.” The consequence is stark. “It means premature death,” he said. Last year 39 homeless people died “prematurely” within the City of Santa Barbara. This year, that number is already 12. Naturally Heroux’s new job has its skeptics, especially among those who have toiled in the trenches. “I’ve been through this process before. Thousands spent on studies and plans, all of which end up as thick paperweights,” said Ken Williams, a county social service employee who’s been working with the homeless for 25 years. “I respect Roger, he does great work. But every few days someone else dies. If the county spends enough time studying this, maybe they’ll all be dead.” The Tangled Web Last summer Heroux agreed to prepare a report listing all county services now available to the homeless and the cost. The supervisors budgeted $60,000 for the work; Heroux charged only half. The idea originated with an informal but intensely focused gathering of homeless advocates, providers, academics, and elected officials who meet two Fridays each month at the Mesa home of Chuck Blitz, a politically connected Santa Barbara developer who has long worked on homeless causes. The afternoon meetings allowed everyone to explain what they were doing, and what they needed. Heroux was a frequent participant. One of the most urgent issues discussed was the disconnected nature of the county’s homeless services and how difficult it was for the homeless to access such an entangled system. It was agreed that a homeless czar was needed to clean up the mess. But before that could happen, the county needed to find out just how much was being done, by whom, and at what cost. Hence the study.

By The Numbers:
Heroux’s Homeless Report

Number of homeless people in California in 2006: 400,000 – 1 million
Number of homeless in Santa Barbara County today: 6,150
Number of homeless in Santa Barbara Cou tnty in 1984: 3,883
Number of kids 18 and under considered homeless: 1,045
Single men: 60 percent
Veterans: 20 percent
Single women: 15 percent
Total estimated expenditure on homeless-related services and response by public and private agencies in Santa Barbara County in 2005: $36 million
Total cost to County of Santa Barbara in 2005: $11.4 million
County jail: $4. 7 million
Public Health Dept.: $2.7 million
Emergency room costs to three county hospitals: $7.8 million
Alcohol, Drugs and Mental Health Dept.: $1.5 million
Housing and Community Development Dept.: $1.48 million
Social Services Dept.: $854,000
Costs to City of Santa Barbara in 2005: $6.8 million
Direct services: $600,000
Police costs to enforce anti-drinking/homeless laws: $450,000
Shelter/housing capital costs: $5.5 million
Costs to City of Santa Maria in 2005: $1.4 million
Number of people on waiting list for Section 8 Housing vouchers: 11,300
Number of months people on list can expect to wait: 36 – 60
Number of units taking Section 8 recipients: 3,000
Number of single-room-occupancy (residential hotel)
beds lost since 1987 in City of Santa Barbara: 482
Number of homeless treated by Public Health Department in 2005: 4,082
Number of visits by those 4,082: 18,035
How many detox beds county needs: 200

As part of his research, Heroux interviewed 120 people. Of those, 30 were homeless. “I wanted to hear their stories,” he said. I wanted to know what happened to them as well as what kinds of services they were getting, what they weren’t getting, where they ate, where they slept.” Heroux said he never offered money and everyone cooperated. The information challenged most stereotypes about the homeless. “I wanted to show that educated, affluent people can become homeless … that there but for the grace of God, we could all be on the streets.” Sadly, some stereotypes were confirmed. One 19-year-old, who’d been in as many foster homes as his years on the planet, fit the national statistics that show 50 percent of all foster children winding up homeless within two years of emancipation. Heroux was particularly disturbed by a woman in her mid 20s, who’d given birth to a child 15 days prior to their interview. “She’d been on the streets since ninth grade. She’s got no job, no skills, not even a high school education, and she’s out on the streets with an infant. She doesn’t belong in a shelter. We’ve got to get her and her baby out of the shelter and off the streets.” From his prior experience at the Casa Esperanza shelter, Heroux had already dismissed the so-called magnet theory, which argues homeless people are drawn to communities that provide services. It’s the weather. “If you were living on the streets, tell me, would you rather be here or on the streets of Boston?” he asked. “All coastal communities are going through the same thing.” Based on a survey he conducted of shelter guests over a three-month period, Heroux said 28 percent reported being from Santa Barbara County, one-third from California but outside the county, and the rest from other parts of the country. Aside from the $36 million annual price tag, Heroux said his biggest shock was the number of homeless people behind bars in county jail. Last October 14, the Sheriff’s Department reported 152 of the 706 inmates in county jail listed a shelter as their home address or no home address at all. Ninety percent of these reportedly had substance abuse problems; about 15 percent received some form of treatment for mental health. Sheriff’s spokesman Erik Raney cautioned that not everyone who declined to list a home address is homeless. Some prisoners simply refused to give any information to the processing deputies. On the forms, jailers enter “no known address.” Raney also argued that jail only costs $59 per night rather than the $86 Heroux reported. Since some prisoners get federal subsidies to offset costs it is possible that the overall annual expense could fall to $3.3 million, $1.4 million less than Heroux’s estimate. And while Raney acknowledged there might be more appropriate ways of dealing with some of the jails’ homeless population, “We don’t lock people up because they’re homeless,” he said. “We lock them up because they broke the law.” Heroux’s most pointed conclusions were reserved for the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Department, which he concluded “is overwhelmed by the number of mentally ill. The department has been criticized by the majority of homeless advocates for being unresponsive. Pitifully few mental health professionals work on the streets and in the shelters where they are desperately needed. Heroux estimates that 2,000 of the county’s homeless have significant mental illness problems, yet only 700 are on the county’s caseload. “That means 1,300 are not getting the care they need.” Heroux is quick to praise some of the changes initiated by the mental health department’s new director Dr. James Broderick. He’s also quick to blame the state for not funding treatment for so essential a need. But when Heroux ran the homeless shelter himself, he discovered how hard it was to make the system work. “I was as guilty as any of my colleagues,” he said. “Dealing with homeless was just one of my issues. Did I check what’s happening at Mental Health or Social Services? I didn’t. I was too busy dealing with anthrax scares or dealing with TB. Nobody has the big picture. No one. We can maintain the status quo, and in 10 years, we’ll have spent $300 million. Or we can knock down our silos and try something different.” Spare Change Just what that “something different” looks like remains to be seen. This past week, Heroux met with homeless service advocates working to develop what’s known as “The 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.” The George Bush White House — unhappy with the high cost of homeless services and the limited results — is offering financial incentives for communities to develop new ways to deal with the most difficult 10 percent of homeless who account for 50 percent of the total costs. One idea is to provide housing equipped with rehab workers and professional counselors. The question, of course, is where, on what land, and who will pay the initial cash outlays. Attorney and homeless advocate Glen Mowrer, with the Committee for Social Justice, expressed frustration at yet another planning process. The needs, he said, are already well known: more homeless housing to replace the loss of 562 residential hotel beds in the past 20 years, more detox beds, and more mental health beds. What’s needed is action, not plans. “This way they can get together and regurgitate the same material over and over and never have to put the pedal to the metal and fight with neighbors who don’t want to see anything built anywhere, and especially not for homeless.” Heroux should be able to mollify such skepticism with his sincerity and his commitment, but only for a while. If the county’s homeless programs remain the same crazy quilt it is today — with no one in charge and no one accountable — he will have failed. Heroux recognizes he’s been given a rare opportunity to change the way the county does business. He also understands that moment won’t last forever. He likens the county system to a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s his job to put it together. Thanks to his report, at least he knows how many pieces there are and what they look like.

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