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St. Joseph’s VCHIP targets most vulnerable homeless

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Venice Chronic Homeless Intervention Project has placed more than 50 chronically homeless in supportive housing with over 93 percent success rate.For well over a decade, Los Angeles has held the dubious distinction of being the “homeless capital of America.” Its biannual census of 2011 found there were more than 51,000 homeless men, women and children living in the county on any given night. 

The city’s 50-block skid row area near downtown — with some 4,300 homeless barely eking out an existence, many in gritty street encampments — gets most of the attention. But Hollywood, the City of Santa Monica and nearby Venice are also local homelessness hot spots. 

In fact, Venice has headed up the “homeless news” lately for banning overnight camping along the beach boardwalk plus placing strict limitations on overnight parking. And on March 7, three large trucks from the Los Angeles City Bureau of Sanitation, accompanied by LAPD officers, hauled away the personal belongings of more than 50 homeless people on Third Avenue, including back packs, suitcases, sleeping bags, medications and personal items. A prominent civil rights attorney shortly filed damage claims against Los Angeles.

But there are encouraging developments. The St. Joseph Center recently reported that its Venice Chronic Homeless Intervention Project (VCHIP), launched in July 2009, has helped over 50 chronically homeless individuals get off the street. 

Moreover, the so-called “housing-first” effort — which places homeless people into apartments as quickly as possible and then provides them with supportive services — with additional funding from the L.A. County Department of Mental Health and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is on track to house at least 165 highly vulnerable homeless people from the Venice community by 2015. 

From El Paso to Venice

More than 93 percent of these chronically homeless, very vulnerable individuals have stayed mostly in their own apartments and off the mean streets for more than a year. Loretta Aguilar, 57, and her developmentally disabled son, Donald Edwards, 36, are two of these formally down-and-outers who radically changed their lives through VCHIP. 

The single mom says the main reason they left their native Texas was family problems. She had been saddled “24/7” with taking care of her ailing mother while her siblings went about living their own lives. So Loretta and her adult son — who was born with one kidney plus a hole in his heart and later developed severe spinal meningitis — boarded a Greyhound bus in 2006 and arrived a day-and-a-half later at L.A.’s Union Station with the clothes on their backs and a single knapsack. For a while they stayed downtown, but then made their way to Long Beach.

“We met some people there and they showed us where to get food and things like that at different missions,” Donald told a recent visitor to their second-story one-bedroom apartment a couple blocks off Venice Boulevard near La Brea Avenue. 

“We slept anywhere,” Loretta recalled. “We slept by the library and we slept on a hill close to the water there. One day we woke up in the morning and it was raining right on us. We got soaked.”

But their worst experience in Long Beach happened when a couple of police officers came into the public library and handcuffed Donald while he was using a computer. They took him away to a place Loretta called a “mental home.” She was able, however, to get him released the next day. 

After about a year in Long Beach, a street friend convinced them to move to Venice, where life would be easier with fewer cops hassling them. But before the week was out, the friend took off, leaving them stranded. But by this time, Donald was getting his bearings.

“This might seem funny to some people,” he said. “But the reason I know about L.A. is by watching TV shows and the movies that were filmed in L.A. Like the movie ‘Speed.’ It was filmed partly in Venice.”

The homeless mother and son quickly settled into a fixed daily regimen. 

After sleeping outside, the pair would be the first in line at St. Joseph Center to sign up for the following day’s meal before having breakfast at the center’s Bread and Roses Café. At St. Joseph’s they were also able to take showers and get their mail. Next they would haul their belongings across town to another service provider in time for lunch and then make their way back to stake out a familiar safe place in Venice to sleep outdoors one more night. Often this was the steps of a church. 

And, again, there were frequent encounters with the police, who tried to keep the pair on the move. Still, somehow they survived day to day.

But then, after a few years on the streets of Venice, Loretta and Donald met Zach Coil at St. Joseph Center. He was a young, enthusiastic Licensed Clinical Social Worker who worked in the new Venice Chronic Homeless Intervention Project. Donald was already getting SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits, but the outreach worker also helped his mother enroll in the program for disabled adults and children with limited incomes. 

Slowly gaining their trust and friendship, Coil linked them up with doctors and a psychiatrist as well as a money manager at the center. And then came the issue at the heart of VCHIP — housing. 

“One of the big things that we did was help them get into housing. That was a big challenge,” Coil told The Tidings. “There was a lot of frustration at the process of waiting. When you’re dealing with the system that we have for poor people, everything involves checks and balances. You run into the bureaucracy — from the L.A. County Housing Authority all the way up to federal government HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. 

“And when you’re in a survival state like they were and then you see the prize, it’s like ‘Why isn’t that happening yet?’ ‘What are you, the social worker, not doing?’

“So we had some pretty tense moments where they were ready to get a bus ticket back to El Paso. They didn’t understand why it was taking so long and then misinterpreted the delay for malice.” 

But after six months, the social worker helped them become eligible and certified to receive a housing voucher and then find a Section 8 apartment that both his clients and the housing authority approved. 

“I think they’re doing well; I think they’re doing fantastically well,” Coil observed recently, some 20 months later. “Really, part of housing people is like recovery from substance abuse. It’s recovering from homelessness. So the hope is that you get them back to their baseline — where they were before. It’s amazing considering that these were two people who were dragging their suitcases around town every day for years.” 

‘Housing first’

The dedication of hard-working, concerned case managers like Zachary Coil is one of the major reasons why the retention (or success) rate is so high for the innovative program, according to Julie DeRose, St. Joseph Center’s director of homeless services. To date, more than 93 percent of the men and women served by VCHIP have been off the street and in their apartments for over a year.

“We have staff who are really dedicated to doing this kind of work, and they’re actively involved with the client,” DeRose said. “So I think when you have that level of intensity and that level of dedication, you have the ability to be very successful.”

Va Lecia Adams, executive director of St. Joseph Center readily agrees. “What we found is because of the mental health issues that many of our most vulnerable face, having someone who’s highly skilled and really strong clinically has made a big difference in helping people. And these individuals have been homeless for an average of 10 years.”

Both stress that VCHIP clients really are the most vulnerable segment of Venice’s homeless, which means simply they’re in danger of dying if they remain unattended on the street. These chronically homeless men and women must not only have a history of mental illness, but must meet at least one critical criteria such as having liver disease or cirrhosis, being HIV or AIDS positive, or making three or more emergency room visits in the last three months to be considered for the program. 

In fact, a few of the 98 homeless individuals identified as the most vulnerable in a three-night survey in May 2009 have died since then. (But it’s hard to determine the exact number because some have moved away from Venice.)

The Venice Chronic Homeless Intervention Project is based on a model developed by a nonprofit called Common Ground that substantially reduced homelessness in New York’s Times Square in 2005. This “housing first” approach was later successfully adopted by the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. In L.A. it was initiated by the County Board of Supervisors in 2007 and tabbed “Project 50.” With a one-year-still-in-housing success rate of 88 percent, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky declared, “By all accounts, it has been a success.”

The program not only places the most vulnerable homeless in housing right away, but also “wraps around” them supportive services to treat their mental health, medical, substance abuse, economic, social skill and other life needs. In the past, most recovery programs serving the hard-core homeless required clients to be sober and stable for up to six months before they were accepted.

So what is it about this relatively new model — besides dedicated social workers — that drastically changes lives often given up on?

“We’ve focused so much on the recovery model that we have lots of clients who have been on the streets for years, and people have labeled them ‘service resistant’ when actually that’s not the case at all,” said DeRose, the homeless services director. “In fact, we have been trying to put services on them that don’t necessarily work. 

“So ‘housing first’ is a good model, first, because everyone deserves to be housed. And the other side of it, I think is it’s logical to think that if you get a person off the street and put them in housing and they have a door closed and they feel safe, they’re more likely to make the choices to actually work on their other issues: their substance abuse and mental health.” 

Executive director Adams agrees. “The belief that these chronically homeless people don’t want to be indoors gets shattered by this program,” she pointed out. “And that’s the beginning. I think they really do want to come indoors. And little by little it starts to feel good. 

“Then they start to think, ‘Well, maybe I can get better and cut back on my drinking or drug use?’ And then there’s this person, the case manager, to walk alongside of you.”

‘Changed our lives’

“At first I didn’t want to come into an apartment,” Donald Edwards acknowledged with a shrug, showing his latest Spiderman video to the visitor. “I don’t know why. Don’t ask me why.”

“It was just getting too much,” Loretta Aguilar explained. “Everything was happening at once.”

But today, after being in the cozy apartment for 20 months, both agree it’s changed their struggling lives.

“Oh, it’s real cool ’cause I don’t have to worry about my stuff being stolen,” Donald said, looking around at the bookcases stacked with more DVDs and VHS tapes of adventure and sci-fi flicks. “So, yeah, it’s a lot better than being on the street.”

After the mother and son exchanged glances, they broke out into knowing smiles.

Loretta spoke first: “You can come and go when you want. You have a restroom when you want, instead of having to find one somewhere else. You can take a shower any time you want. We’re not outside trying to find food. 

“Yeah, we’ve got everything.” Then her expression became more somber. “So moving in here has changed our lives. All I have to say is, and here I go starting to cry, ‘Thank you, St. Joseph, for helping us.’”

Donald said he was still trying to get used to being by the ocean after living so long in the dry heat of Texas. He observed, “I’m just happy to be here, especially when it’s windy or raining or too cold,” looking over again at his mother in their apartment. 

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