Council Rethinking Wisdom Of Homeless Mission’s $600K Funding Monopoly

Six months after a divided San Bernardino City Council entrusted $600,000 to Mercy House and its executive director, Larry Haynes, to create and run a homeless access center as the centerpiece of the county seat’s effort to get a handle on its homeless problem, it heard a belated quarterly report on the performance and effectiveness of the facility at the council’s first meeting this month on November 2.
While the council did not take action to discontinue funding the program, it was clear that three of the council members who did not support the undertaking in May remain skeptical and one of those who did support it is now entertaining doubts about whether putting nearly all of the city’s homelessness-fighting eggs in Mercy House’s basket is the wisest approach.
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 documented homeless individuals 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, took on the role of the San Bernardino Homeless Access Center operator on February 27, 2015. In the following two months the center enrolled 115 clients and housed 11 families. In the meantime, Haynes submitted a proposal to have Mercy House 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. With Councilman John Valdivia abstaining and councilmen Henry Nickel and Fred Shorett opposed, the remainder of the city council – Rikke Van Johnson, Jim Mulvihill, Virginia Marquez, and Benito Barrios – voted to provide Mercy House with the $600,000 to continue operating the access center through June 30, 2016.
On November 2, assistant city housing director Brandon Mims started the quarterly report, which was three months late, off on a positive note.
“We have some good news about homelessness in San Bernardino,” said Mims. “Since 2012 we have aligned our investment of general fund, Emergency Solutions Grant and Community Development Block Grant dollars into data-driven, results oriented partnerships and programs that prioritize housing first. The housing-first concept is really intended to eliminate all those barriers that would keep a homeless person from entering service. A lot of our service providers that we were funding prior to 2012 had a lot of restrictions on their programs and that rally hampered peoples’ ability to join those programs and transition out of homelessness.”
Displaying a chart on the council chambers’ overhead projector, Mims said it “shows an accelerated upward movement in funding, nearing close to $300,000 for rapid rehousing, homelessness prevention increasing to almost $180,000 and funding for emergency sheltering and street outreach staying flat or declining to under $100,000. What we’re noticing and we’re noticing countywide and regionwide is the more rapid rehousing dollars you can put out there, the more you can help people transition out of homelessness. In 2014 the city had 167 homeless veterans and in 2015 the city counted 139 homeless veterans. Our overall homeless count dropped from 918 in 2013 to 767 in 2015.”
Saying that “when we look at these numbers we want to know if it is a real reduction,” Mims pointed to the January 28 point in time count as an indicator of where the city was just prior to the creation of the access center that would allow the city to measure whether it is indeed making an inroad on the homeless problem. The point in time count is a comprehensive survey of homeless people throughout San Bernardino County undertaken on a single day.
Mims was enthusiastic in endorsing Haynes and Mercy House.
“Mercy house collaboration started earlier this year,” Mims said, referencing Haynes’ as its leader. “One of the things we have been able to focus on with Mercy House is really targeting the many different factors that a person who is homeless is dealing with. Mercy House has been a great partner in helping us look at those things because myself and my staff are not homeless specialists. Everyday people are coming into the access center with a number of issues. There is not just one thing that is keeping them homeless. In the first quarter we served 402 unique individuals, housed or prevented homelessness for 17 households, which was 39 unique individuals. Year-to-date we served 1,061 unique individuals and housed or prevented homelessness for 33 households, which is 92 individuals.”
Councilman Fred Shorett, while saying, “I appreciate this report and I appreciate Larry being here to give us a report, since I have asked for this,” went on to state, “When we talked about quarterly reports, this isn’t exactly what I was looking for. I can read the numbers here and they’re fine. But I look at them and I don’t know exactly what they mean: 33 households 92 individuals 1,061 people served, unique individuals.”
Shorett continued, “When I asked the city manager’s office to give us a presentation or a report, I was really interested in the dollars and how they equate, because as you recall, I will just refresh everyone’s memory, there was over $600,000 or right around $600,000 that was all given to one agency. That was Mercy House. And some of the other agencies that had been good partners over the years were kind of left wanting. They didn’t get some of their funding that they were kind of counting on. That was, of course, a big concern of mine at the time – that we were taking a new organization – and I’ve said it every time and I’ll say it this time too, not too disparage Mercy House or the job they do or what they can do – but I believed then, and I still tend to agree and believe, though I think Mercy House is providing a service, we are not partnering with these other agencies as well as we should have and we still could. So, that’s a big concern of mine. This report is fine. I don’t need to belabor the point any more. This is not the report I want to look at. I want a report on the nexus of funding and other organizations and who is doing what, getting a good thorough understanding of how we are partnering with all of our partners. Not only how Mercy House is partnering with other partners but how the City of San Bernardino is partnering with the three standouts – Time For Change, Kim Carter and her organization, the Salvation Army, and CCLM – and there are many others. Those are the big three in this community that I’ve had contact with. They are willing and working with you folks and all that, but I don’t think that they feel like they are really a part of the funding and all the money that we’ve given to one outside organization that has come and is doing the same things that a lot of these organizations are capable of doing as well. I know the county has decided to end homelessness for veterans. I’m thrilled veteran homelessness is down fifty percent. That’s great. I’m not sure our community right now and the money we’ve spent on it can take credit for that. I think it’s been largely the county. The county found 401 that they can count – homeless veterans – and they pretty much are the ones that are ending the veterans’ homelessness in this county and of course because we’re the biggest homeless population within the county, they’re helping us, which is great and which is, has been what I have been suggesting and hoping for all along, is that we do a better job of partnering with the county.”
In response to Shorett, Haynes was given the floor at the speaker’s podium.
Haynes, who makes $131,000 per year as the general manager of Mercy House’s operations throughout Southern California, was initially tenuous and defensive in his responses to the council’s questions, but grew progressively bolder in his impromptu exposition, asserting that the Mercy House’s focus on permanently moving people off the streets was preferable to providing short term fixes. He began by attempting to knock down Shorett’s suggestion that Mercy House’s monopolization of the available funding for combating homelessness was resented by other service providers.
“With regards to whether we are qualified to be here or not, I will say at least in talking with the other service partners, the churches and so forth, those aren’t the conversations we’re having,” Haynes said. “They’re happy we’re here. We’re working together. There is not an accusation we don’t belong here. They’re happy for the help. We’re talking. We’re going after funding together. We’re doing everything you would expect out of a good partner. So while I understand your expression of your concern, which you’ve said several times, I will just say with the partners I’m working with, many of whom are listed on the board there, many of whom have been in these council chambers, many of whom you’ve highlighted as some of the top providers, we’re working well together and were all happy we’re here working together. An example of that would have been the resource fair that we hosted with Loma Linda University and in which a number of the agencies participated. In regards to the specific funding, we’re transparent and we’re happy to do it. Are you looking for an accounting tonight of the money we’ve spent so far? Because I’m happy to do that.”
Shorett pressed Haynes with regard to “the time line,” saying he wanted to be able to measure the breadth and depth of the problem from “when we started” and compare it to the progress made and “where you are going [and] how it relates to the $600,000 in approximately a two-year period.”
Haynes responded, “We can show you how every dollar will be spent, the benchmarks we think will happen, what our vision is for the future and how it relates to the city.”
Councilman Henry Nickel picked up where Shorett had left off, pressing Haynes to justify not just Mercy House’s approach but the efficacy of what it was doing and whether the provision of funding to it would compromise other programs.
“One of the questions I am constantly posed with is, ‘Dollars and cents wise, how are we performing and are we over time seeing an improvement in terms of the cost effectiveness of this program?’ Are we becoming more efficient? Where can we identify greater efficiencies we can integrate into this through partnerships blending all the different services together? It just seems to me we have so many different services doing different things in this community. My understanding is the intention of this access center was bringing these services together ideally under one roof. Are most of your clientele just coming in voluntarily? Are they walking in the door or exactly how are they connecting to your service?”
“I believe it is a combination of walk-ins and police referrals, if I am not mistaken,” said Haynes, asserting Mercy House is “a resource for the police department as well.”
Nickel then said, “Anecdotally, I’m hearing from a lot of people we still have a lot of homeless people. We opened this access center and why do we continue to have homeless encampments around the city? What are we doing to proactively ensure that we are reducing this element within our city?”
This prompted Haynes to dwell upon the relative merit of concentrating on creating permanent housing for a relatively smaller number of the homeless in the city in lieu of funding temporary housing across the spectrum of the city’s homeless.
“I welcome the conversation about how the money is spent and what the best practices are,” said Haynes. “It is a controversial thing in my world; for years and years and years all across the country we developed a shelter system and if you talk to anybody on the streets, they say, ‘Gosh, if we want to help the homeless, what we want to do is build a shelter. Well, there are those of us who believe in data. There are those of us who want to go wherever the data drives us, whatever is the most cost effective way to do these things, not what our ideology is, not the tradition, not the way we’ve always done it. And so it has been a bit of a culture shock over the last few years to a lot of my contemporaries. There is a reason HUD [the federal department of Housing and Urban Development] has stopped funding transitional housing. It’s one of the worst things we can do with our money cost effective-wise. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work. I’m just saying it is a lot more expensive than some of the other options out there. That’s why there has been an emphasis on rapid rehousing, in particular permanent supportive housing. Secondarily there’s some debate over prevention. What is the cost of getting somebody off the street into permanent housing? What you do is you come up with the formula, the strategies which will lead you to exactly what we have been doing together as partners: an emphasis on housing placement, an emphasis on rapid rehousing, a move away from some more traditional shelter models. It is a very enlightened progressive thing you’ve done and that’s why, if you break down the money that’s been spent so far and the number of housing placements we have, this is going to stand up compared to just about anybody in the country, guys. I’m happy to have that conversation with you. This is a big deal. This is a good thing, for us to have in six months time placed 100 people into permanent housing is a really big deal when you consider the money that has been spent against it. So I think we should welcome this conversation about what are you exactly getting for your money.”
Haynes then took a stab at explaining the anecdotal phenomena Nickel referenced, acknowledging that successful programs to assist the homeless can attract more homeless into the area.
“The other thing we have to answer and we want to be your partners on this – we have to worry about a magnet effect,” Haynes said. “Now, I know most of my colleagues out there in the nonprofit world right now are cussing at me though they are not in the room. They will say, ‘Don’t say that. What we do doesn’t bring a magnet effect.’ Yeah, it does, kinda. We have to have an answer for that. We’ve got to have a San Bernardino focus. We’ve got to figure out what we are doing. We have to have that balance between how do we serve San Bernardino’s homelessness and still be a cooperative partner with the county. What is that delicate balance? I think we have something to add to that conversation that serves the city well. Any responsible provider who has taken your money who was trying to end your city’s homelessness has to be a partner with you in that magnet effect question. This may surprise you, but I’m actually on board with that.”
Haynes sought to turn the dialogue in such a way to suggest that the city’s funding of the program Mercy House is championing redounded to not just the city’s benefit but reflected positively on the council members themselves. In doing so, he referenced the success Mercy House has had throughout Southern California.
“Housing works,” Haynes intoned. “Permanent housing works for everyone with the right wraparound services. It has to be done well. It has to be financed properly. It has to be in the right place. There’s a lot of questions that go with that but at the end of the day at Mercy House and most of the COCs we’ve had tremendous success in getting even the most resistant people placed into permanent housing and ending their homelessness. We do that for 900 people a year, every year 900 different people. We’ll do it again this year. At the end of the day, with the right service provider and the right services, housing works for everyone. Not everyone that is placed in housing makes it 100 percent of the time. People are exited from shelter all the time all over the country, so what I am suggesting is, if you look at the studies and the outcomes, the best chance to end someone’s homelessness is in a permanent setting even if you have to do it on more than one occasion. But there has to be the services and support. That’s why we’ve got 100 people placed in permanent housing, because the emphasis has been on permanent housing and not shelters. No disrespect – shelter is important. It plays a role but what we’ve engaged, through councils’ leadership, with the guidance of staff, is a housing placement strategy that has literally ended the homelessness of roughly 100 people from San Bernardino. Six months ago 100 people who were living on the streets of San Bernardino are now in permanent housing because of the strategy you have invested in us, because it had an emphasis on housing as opposed to other halfway measures. Well done.”
Haynes responded to what precisely had been done for the 1,061 people the access center had been credited with helping.
“It ranges everywhere from us developing a case management plan all the way to permanent housing,” he said. “So it could be somebody we are simply connecting to another provider all the way to – and we’re now over 100 individuals – or somebody we have literally placed into permanent housing. What we’re trying to establish there with that are the numbers we are serving when we say unique, these are non-duplicated individuals, non-duplicated within our system.”
Irrespective of the magnet effect he referenced, Haynes said surveys that show homelessness is drawing down in the city are accurate.
“Believe the numbers,” Haynes said. “If the numbers seem like they’re going down, they probably are. Trust data, not anecdote. Trust data, trust research, not simply what somebody says to you or what you think or feel, because those things can be very misleading. Trust the research. Things may be improving more than we think.”
As the item was a report, no action was taken on it. Nevertheless, aside from Shorett’s and Nickel’s continuing skepticism, it was clear that one of the key supporters of providing the $600,000 to Mercy House in May, councilman Rikke Van Johnson, was troubled by the anecdotal reports relating to the persistence of homelessness in the city. Moreover, Johnson questioned the variance between the figures relating to city homelessness abstracted from the city’s point in time survey last January and higher numbers obtained in surveys completed by the police department, which is also monitoring the homeless circumstance.
“He says to trust the data,” Johnson said. “One of the challenging aspects of the data [is] we have a homeless division in our police depart that says there’s 2,000 homeless people in our community two years ago. That data does not match up with the point in time count. Why is there such a disparity?”

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