Funding Face-Off Pits Homeless Against Mentally Ill People

Hundreds of Volunteers Sought for Annual Homeless Count

The results of the homeless count will be used to help homeless service providers in securing millions of dollars in state and federal homeless assistance grants. Pictured: Volunteer Hannah Rael gives the survey to a woman living in an RV. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Hundreds of volunteers are now being sought for this year’s annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count to determine the number, location, and demographic background of homeless people living in Santa Barbara County. The results of this count will be used to help homeless service providers in securing millions of dollars in state and federal homeless assistance grants.

With homelessness having now achieved a new radioactive urgency statewide ​— ​as both a political and public safety issue ​— ​more government grant dollars are now available. Just as urgent is getting accurate counts. Typically, Point-in-Time counts took place every other year. Now it’s happening every year.

In the county, the homeless count has consistently hovered at about 1,800 people since it started in 2011. Of those, about 1,400 are deemed “unsheltered,” meaning they live on the streets, outdoors, or in cars. Statewide, by contrast, the numbers have been soaring. In the past two years, California’s homeless population increased by 24 percent and is expected to jump by another 10 percent when this year’s tally is tabulated. No other state has nearly so many homeless people as California, which has 130,000. Of those, 69 percent are unsheltered, also the highest in the nation.

Two years ago, state voters approved a $2 billion bond to fund housing projects for homeless people; this year, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg as California’s de facto homeless czar. In that role, Steinberg hatched a funding scheme to provide additional supportive housing and shelter space by tapping billions in special funds generated by Proposition 63, the so-called “millionaire’s tax” California voters approved 16 years ago to fund mental-health services.

Prop. 63, which Steinberg helped cosponsor, generates $2.4 billion a year. Of that, $22 million annually goes to Santa Barbara County’s Department of Behavioral Wellness to pay for basic mental-health services for those facing serious needs. That money, in turn, is used to leverage matching mental-health funding from Medi-Cal. In other words, Prop. 63 accounts for $44 million out of the department’s $140 million annual budget, according to Behavioral Wellness chief Alice Gleghorn.

“If this goes through, this would be devastating to Santa Barbara County and every county in the state,” Gleghorn said. “That’s one third of our budget.”

Steinberg calls his proposal Refresh, but, speaking at a meeting hosted by the Santa Barbara chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), Supervisor Das Williams said, “I’d call it a raid ​— ​a well-intentioned raid, but a raid nonetheless.”

Williams said the statewide association of county governments is attempting to negotiate changes to Steinberg’s proposal that will make its impact less onerous. As written now, Williams said Refresh would have to go back to the voters for approval. Based on the hundreds of mental-health advocates who packed an Assembly subcommittee meeting this December, Williams suggested the proposal will face determined opposition.

Locally, this marks one of the rare occasions where NAMI and Gleghorn ​— ​often at odds ​— ​find themselves rowing in the same direction. NAMI and the statewide association of mental-health department executives are leading the charge against Steinberg’s plan.

“No one argues that there isn’t a pressing need when it comes to the homeless,” said NAMI’s Lynne Gibbs. “But to fund it off the backs of people with serious mental illnesses, for whom services are already so insufficient ​— ​that’s really unthinkable.”

If Refresh were to pass, Gibbs said, half the funds would be diverted to shelter for the homeless and the rest would be split providing mental-health services to homeless youth and mentally ill people behind bars. Under this scenario, Williams objected, people with mental illnesses would find themselves forced to get arrested to obtain services the county now provides. And the cost, he said, is much greater behind bars.

The loss of this funding would come just as the county is poised to open a new 80-bed mental-health facility in Lompoc for those with long-term debilitating conditions. If and when it opens, it will be a first for Santa Barbara County. What impact the loss of the Prop. 63 dollars might have remains uncertain.

Steinberg, on vacation, was not available for comment. In prior news accounts, he’s argued that dipping into Prop. 63 funds makes sense because so many homeless people suffer serious mental-health issues.

As that battle rages on, local homeless service organizers like Emily Allen with Home for Good are hoping to rustle up 500 volunteers to head out early the morning of January 29 in search of homeless people throughout at the county.

“At 5:30 in the morning, homeless people tend to stand out a bit,” she stated.

Teams of volunteers will canvass every census tract in the county, led by a team leader and a guide, someone who formerly lived in the streets. In exchange for 15 minutes of time, the volunteers will offer their subjects $5 gift certificates provided by McDonalds and Starbucks, plus fresh socks and toiletries.

“They’ll ask questions like, ‘Where did you sleep last night?’” said Allen. They’ll also ask where the person lived before becoming unhoused. Previous counts indicate 70 percent were county residents before they lost their housing. For homeless people living in camps along the railroad tracks, more experienced teams will go out after the morning census.

As the issue has assumed a greater intensity of concern, Santa Barbara County just received $9 million in one-time homeless emergency response dollars to be spread throughout the county. Last week, the county received another homeless-related grant, this one for $4.1 million. How that will be spent has yet to be determined.

The numbers, said Lucille Boss with the County’s Department of Housing and Community Development, will help guide which services go to which people—long-term supportive housing for those with more chronic needs as opposed to “rapid rehousing” grants to help pay first month’s rent or to hire attorneys to fight evictions.

Those interested in volunteering for the Point-in-Time Count can visit liveunitedsbc.org. Training will be provided. 

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