Can Roger Heroux Fix What Ails the County’s Homeless

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
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
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:
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:
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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