Monterey County homelessness: Trying to define the problem

Salinas >> When city contractors cleared out the homeless encampment in Chinatown this week, many of its residents said they were being stripped of their only place to live.

But where they lived had become dangerously unsanitary, government officials and homeless service providers said. The camp was reaching a crisis point, and the sweep was deemed necessary in the name of health and safety.

To those involved, the sweep was not seen as a solution to homelessness, but as an immediate action in a years-long pursuit of that solution.

Katherine Thoeni is the executive officer of the Coalition of Homeless Services Providers, the coordinating point of organizations, cities and counties involved in a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The nonprofit coalition’s very existence is required if cities and counties want federal and state funding, and to do that it needs to collect data. Lots of data.

That puts Thoeni in a position to see what the greatest obstacles are to ending homelessness. Her assessment: Monterey County’s lack of affordable housing.

“That realization is sinking in. We are working with county government and various jurisdictions to start that work,” she said. “But how we get from here to there is complicated, expensive and time consuming. And what we do in the meantime is also critical to make sure that we’re able to provide services to as many people as we possibly can in this community.”

The best place to start with any problem is to define it. One of the coalition’s main functions is to conduct a homeless census every two years, which involves a point-in-time count followed by a survey. The most recent report of those findings comes from a count and survey from January and February 2015.

Drawing from this census and an interview with Thoeni, here’s a breakdown on the basics of homelessness in Monterey County. Because, as Thoeni says, “Everybody has a stake in it.”

WHAT DOES “HOMELESS” MEAN?

You’re considered homeless if you lack a fixed address or if you sleep in places not meant for human habitation — alleys, parks, cars and abandoned buildings, for example.

Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the street. The definition includes people in emergency shelters or transitional housing, which provides temporary living arrangements. These are the sheltered homeless. In 2015, 29 percent of Monterey County’s homeless population was sheltered.

HOW MANY ARE HOMELESS IN MONTEREY COUNTY?

There were 2,308 homeless people counted in 2015. That number is down 11 percent from 2013.

Most, 90 percent, were 25 and older. The population broke down almost evenly along gender lines, 49 percent men to 50 percent women (1 percent reported being transgender).

Nearly half — 47 percent — were white, while the next highest demographic was Latino at 35 percent.

WHERE DO THEY LIVE?

More than half of the county’s unsheltered homeless population lives in Salinas and Monterey — and Salinas has more than twice the number of homeless people than Monterey. The cities with the next highest populations are Seaside and Marina.

The largest concentration of homeless people in Salinas is in the Chinatown neighborhood, a 12-block area not far from downtown roughly bordered by North Main Street, East Rossi Street, Sherwood Drive and Front Street. The encampment there can see around 200 people on a given day.

Between 2013 and 2015, the census found a migration of homeless people from the Monterey Peninsula to Salinas. That could be because of the large concentration of homeless in Salinas, as individuals have a tendency to join encampments.

Elsewhere in Monterey County, there are pockets of homeless people on beaches and freeway entrances, Laguna Grande Park and along the Pajaro River, to name a few places. Thoeni said she has started seeing a new phenomenon of four- or five-tent camps popping up in one area only to disappear and pop up somewhere else.

“People are moving more. What that means in trends and patterns, I don’t know yet,” she said.

WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?

Mainly, right here. According to the 2015 census, 78 percent of people who are homeless were living in Monterey County at the time they became homeless. Of that group, over half had lived here for more than 10 years.

HOW DID CHINATOWN BECOME A HUB FOR THE HOMELESS?

Historically, the neighborhood was home to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino communities. According to a report on Chinatown from June 2015, the area’s shift to a homeless haven and open-air drug market can be traced to the 1970s, when a drop-in center opened in downtown Salinas as part of a grant to reduce arrests for public intoxication. That time also marked the beginning of efforts to revitalize Main Street and draw homeless people away from its storefronts.

The center was relocated to Soledad Street in Chinatown in the 1980s, in part because it could be combined with other homeless services already offered in the area. The center closed in the 1990s, to be replaced by Dorothy’s Place Hospitality Center, the self-described “anchor of life” for the homeless people of Chinatown, offering services including a food pantry, health clinic and women’s shelter.

Over time, the homeless population steadily increased and coalesced into encampments.

WHAT CAUSES HOMELESSNESS?

It’s not just one thing. In fact, it’s often a combination of things.

There are economic causes that start with the loss of a job. It could be mental illness, or drug or alcohol addiction. It could be a gay teenager kicked out of the house. These are just a few examples.

But the main factor seems to be a lack of affordable housing. Seventy-four percent of homeless people said the biggest obstacle to obtaining permanent housing was that they couldn’t afford rent. That’s up from 60 percent in 2013.

THE DEFINITION OF AFFORDABLE

Thoeni said the rent target should be for extremely low-income earners, those making at most 30 percent of the area’s median income. Most affordable housing targets are for earners making at least 80 percent of the median income, she said.

The draft housing element of Monterey County’s general plan provides an example for rents in unincorporated areas. The maximum affordable rent for extremely low-income earners ranges from $260 to $331 a month, depending on household size. Affordable rents for those making at least 80 percent of median income range from $964 to $1,417 a month.

The report determined these to be unaffordable and barely affordable, respectively.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP THE HOMELESS FIND HOUSING?

The “basic package” of homeless programs, Thoeni said, consists of emergency shelters, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and homeless prevention.

The middle three describe programs that offer rental assistance along with other supportive services, like help accessing benefits or finding a job. Where they differ is in length of stay: People can stay in transitional housing for up to two years, while rapid rehousing is typically limited to about six months. There is no time limit on permanent supportive housing.

The type of housing recommended for each person depends on a number of factors, such as health, family and income.

It also depends on the person’s willingness to accept help.

WHY WOULD THEY REFUSE HELP?

That’s a common challenge, Thoeni said. You can’t force people to accept services. Two men who died in Monterey in December reportedly refused assistance.

As with the causes of homelessness, the reasons to refuse help are varied. Mental illness, addiction and even stubbornness can play a role, but often it goes deeper than that.

“The further you get into the cycle of homelessness, the further back your reference point goes. So when you’re newly homeless, you can still remember — remember what it was like to have a door with a lock on it or to have a refrigerator or to be able to take a shower,” Thoeni said. “But the longer you live in this condition, the less you can remember that. ...

“For whatever reason, people can lose their ability to envision a better future.”

IF THEY ACCEPT HOUSING, WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?

Monterey County has a lot of transitional housing units thanks in large part to property it was able to snap up after the closure of Fort Ord.

For the other housing programs, that involves coordinating with landlords. And that can be difficult.

“If you’re that landlord and I’ve got a line in front of me of people who want to rent my apartment, and the first 20 people have three times the monthly rent as income, what’s my incentive to take the 21st person who’s on a program?” Thoeni said. “That’s one of our huge challenges. ...

“What landlords don’t seem to realize is that when you do take someone from a program, they have a level of support that an average renter doesn’t have. They have a team working with them — and man, they want to keep them housed.”

IS ANYTHING WORKING?

Homeless service providers have found that targeted efforts are having an impact.

In the 2013 census, for instance, 221 families were homeless, nearly half of them unsheltered. So service providers focused on helping families. In 2015, there were 117 homeless families — just 2 percent without shelter.

A similar trend was found with veterans, who went from 62 percent unsheltered in 2013 to 42 percent in 2015.

“We do have a strong homeless safety net here — although it needs much more capacity — and we have success stories and we have people moving through this community quietly, who are reclaiming their dreams and finding stability and shifting their mindset,” Thoeni said. “So it happens. It happens every day around here in our community. That’s a really good thing.”

Contact Jeannie Evers at 831-726-4340.