By Mark Gutglueck
(May 5) A divided San Bernardino City Council this week made a further gesture toward alleviating the homeless problem plaguing the county seat, just a few weeks after a countywide survey of homelessness done at the behest of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development pegged the city as having the county’s highest concentration of people living on the streets.
The action places San Bernardino at the forefront of county municipalities proactively dealing with the persistent homeless problem.
The council collectively voted to approve appropriating $600,000 to intensify its efforts at managing its homeless population and creating options for those unsheltered to transition into some sort of civilized living arrangements. It reserved $50,000 of the original $650,000 budgeted for the program to pay for motel and hotel vouchers to be distributed exclusively to any city residents displaced from their homes by an emergency.
A coordinated four-hour survey known as the 2015 Point in Time Homeless Count conducted between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. on January 22 and submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in April found there were 767 homeless in San Bernardino, with 184 in shelters, 200 in transitional housing and 383 unsheltered. That county homeless census was undertaken by the San Bernardino County Homeless Partnership in conjunction with the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health, several of the county’s cities, many of its law enforcement agencies and volunteer organizations.
San Bernardino, the county’s oldest and most populous city with 209,924 residents according to the 2010 Census and which had grown to 213,708 by 2013, had the largest number of homeless of any of the county’s 24 cities, with its 767 easily outdistancing Victorville, which had the second most at 261 homeless, Upland with 166 homeless, Yucca Valley at 161 homeless, Ontario with 146 homeless and Fontana with 135 homeless.
In 2014, the city council directed the city manager to seek bids for a contract provider to offer a “centralized service access center to provide wrap-around services to reduce the number of unsheltered resident homeless population.” It then devoted the proceeds from a United States Housing and Urban Development Department Emergency Solutions Grants Program to be used as a $200,000 effort toward the creation and management of that service access center as part of the city’s so-called Homelessness Intervention Action Plan. In the same time frame the council directed the police chief, office of the mayor and the mayor pro tem to establish and recommend proper residency criteria for eligibility for the program. This resulted in a program policy giving priority to those members of the city’s unsheltered homeless population who could show they once were residents of the city.
Also in 2014, the council declared property owned by the city of San Bernardino located at 241 West 9th Street to be surplus and requested solicitation bids. When no bids were received, the council amended the 2014-2015 Emergency Solutions Grant budget, consisting of money provided to the city by the federal government, allocating $200,000 for a proposed access center and authorized the city manager to enter into negotiations with Mercy Housing Living Centers for operation of the homeless access center, designating 241 West 9th Street, also known as the Easter Seals Building, as the location for that facility.
Mercy House, which is based in Santa Ana and employs Larry Haynes as its executive director, since February 27, 2015 has served as the San Bernardino Homeless Access Center operator. Since opening, the center has enrolled 115 clients and housed 11 families while preparing to make accommodations for two more families.
With the ongoing homeless crisis continuing to grip San Bernardino, Mercy House submitted a proposal to continue operating the San Bernardino Homeless Access Center through Fiscal Year 2016-2017, and the city responded with a plan to provide for funding such an extension through fiscal year 2015-16.
According to Brandon Mims, the city’s assistant housing director, “Mercy House has extensive experience in assisting and providing services to the homeless populations of San Bernardino and Orange Counties. During the 2014-2015 fiscal year Mercy House was able to secure housing for 566 individuals, rescue 64 families from becoming homeless, and serve 4,353 homeless individuals, meeting their immediate needs and providing connections to restore stability.
“The San Bernardino Homeless Access Center provides wrap-around services in order to reduce the number of unsheltered resident homeless population,” Mims continued. “Services include a drop-in center, motel vouchers, food vouchers, information for and assistance with permanent housing, counseling and treatment for mental health and substance abuse, showers and restrooms, and basic medical care. In order for an access center to be effective, it must be open to its clients as much as possible. The proposed hours for the access center are Monday through Sunday; 6:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.”
Mims continued, “The access center seeks to provide essential services that will reduce the number of unsheltered homeless population in our community. Starting from February 27th, 2015, when the mayor and council approved the contract for Mercy House to provide the services for the access center, substantial progress has been made.”
On Monday, May 4, an item was placed on the city council agenda calling for $30,000 to be appropriated to the city administration, and $20,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant Funds be set aside for the purpose of assisting with the homeless solution program. In addition, the item, which was featured for city council consideration, called for providing $55,000 in Emergency Solutions Grant money, another $270,000 to be used to provide 14,716 hours of service delivery by Mercy House staff, provide $50,000 in family motel vouchers; $50,000 in food vouchers, $50,000 for special needs assistance and $50,000 in transportation assistance. And the item also laid out $75,000 for the creation of a “check-in center.”
According to city staff, the homeless access center does not represent disbursements out of the city’s general fund, which is used to cover day-to-day municipal operating expenses, but is covered by federal grant money available to the city in the form of Emergency Solutions Grants and Community Development Block Grant accounts.
The check-in center, according to Haynes, would be an adjunct to the access center where the homeless could store for a period of time their possessions, such as clothes, tools, and identification under a secure arrangement. Haynes said providing the homeless with such a facility would be of great assistance in helping them make efforts to actuate themselves and secure both housing and possible employment. He said that not being able to secure their belongings often represents to the homeless as much of a burden as not having shelter for themselves. “Because they don’t have that, they don’t move forward,” Haynes said. “The check-in center will provide them a point of contact.” In the past, Haynes said, the creation of check-in centers “moved dozens off the streets because of that point of contact.”
A majority of the city council favored the program. In particular, council members, Rikke Johnson and James Mulvihill expressed enthusiasm for the underlying concept, as did councilwoman Virginia Marquez, who further expressed her admiration for the work done by Mercy House. Councilman Benito Barrios proved a crucial swing vote in the program’s favor.
Two of the council’s members, however, John Valdivia and Henry Nickel, were opposed in principle to the extension and its underlying concept. Councilman Fred Shorett, while more accepting of a homeless alleviation program in general, was not sold on Mercy House’s management of that effort.
Councilman Nickel questioned the length of time the program being funded will run, citing section three of the agreement, which showed $400,000 Emergency Solutions Grants and $250,000 in Community Development Block Grants funding the project from July 1 of this year through June 30, 2017. He was informed that the 2017 date given in the agreement was an error and that the $650,000 would fund the project only until July 1, 2016.
Nickel indicated his opposition to the extension of the existing access center program, saying “This is really a $1.3 million extension, not a $650,000 amendment to the agreement. Just to be clear, I think this agreement encompasses a lot more than is included in the budget summary.”
One of councilman Valdivia’s objections was that the homeless are not taxpayers and in Valdivia’s estimation, municipal services should be reserved for those who foot the bill for them.
Valdivia asked that the $50,000 earmarked for hotel vouchers for those forced out of their residences by emergency circumstances be considered as a separate item and that it be administered by some entity other than Mercy House. “My position was that irrespective of the homeless center, this was not to be part of the access center, per se,” Valdivia said of the hotel vouchers. “There are individuals throughout our community that have catastrophic events, life loss, etcetera, to their mobile home, to their family residential unit. I am a little unclear as to why this was somehow combined with the access center funding. What I think, as an elected official, is it’s better run through organizational non-profits. I would like the city manager to make sure this is somehow separate and apart from the access center. I don’t want to think the homeless now have carte blanche access to hotel vouchers here. My position was there are catastrophic events and in the event of an emergency and loss to a property or mobile home or what-have-you, our taxpaying base, our residents here, renter or homeowner, have the access and ability to get a one-day, two-day, three-day voucher so they can at least put life together in the short term, call their insurance agent, make arrangements with family members and attempt to plug the gap on their emergency situation.”
Valdivia made a motion that the $50,000 in hotel vouchers be administered by an entity or municipal department other than Mercy House.
Valdivia, Benito Barrios, Virginia Marquez and Nickel supported that motion.
With regard to the remaining $600,000 program, Marquez was laudatory of Mercy House’s accomplishments so far and endorsed extending the contract. Councilman Rikke Johnson said, “We are taking a step in an unknown direction, but our issues are of a great magnitude in this city.”
Valdivia appealed to his colleagues not to proceed. “I see a lot of duplication in this budget,” he said. “There are a lot of other resources in our community. This is taxpayer money and tangible benefits that I believe could be used elsewhere for improvements throughout our community. From the outset I have not been a supporter of the homeless access center. I think there are other community partners that could be involved. This is not the way to go.”
He garnered support from Nickel and Councilman Fred Shorett, who pushed Haynes to disclose his salary as the executive director of Mercy House. Haynes evaded the question, saying his rate of remuneration was available on guidestar.com. A search of that website showed his yearly compensation to be $131,000.
The staff report, from city manager Allen Parker and prepared by Mims, encouraged the council to proceed. “Staff recommends adoption of the attached resolution which will amend the existing agreement between the city and Mercy House Living Centers for program operations at the San Bernardino Homeless Access Center through June 30, 2017,” the report states.
The vote to provide Mercy House with the $600,000 extension of its existing contract through June 30. 2016 passed, with Johnson, Jim Mulvihill, Marquez, and Barrios in support, Valdivia abstaining and Nickel and Shorett opposed.
By Mark Gutglueck