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CSU Stanislaus hears lessons on homelessness
Turlock prepares to alter homeless plan
Lessons learned in addressing Lisbon, Portugal's homelessness epidemic could be put to good use here in Turlock, according to Professor Jose Lucio. - photo by ANDREA GOODWIN / The Journal
A little over two years ago it became clear that the homeless population of Portugal’s largest city, Lisbon, was increasing at a rapid rate. Half a world away, here in Stanislaus County, the City of Turlock is seeking a solution to the same problem in the wake of the 2008 closure of the Emergency Cold Weather Homeless Shelter.
Jose Lucio, a 2005 Fulbright Faculty Scholar at California State University, Stanislaus, returned to the university on Sept. 29 to bring the lessons learned in researching solutions to Lisbon’s homeless problem here to California — and to offer perspective as to why the same-old, same-old system of shelters wasn’t making a dent in Lisbon’s homeless population.
“If those strategies were working, then the homeless population would have decreased across time,” said Lucio, who serves as a professor of economic development at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal. “Unfortunately, that did not happen.”
A Lisbon City Hall Counselor called upon Lucio in 2007 to see if he could come upon a solution to the problem of chronic homelessness in Lisbon. A new generation of homeless people, brought about by closing factories and rising rents, had taken the streets by storm. They had joined the preexisting homeless population, many of whom stayed in shelters for three years or more at a time, never finding an alternative.
In 1970, Lisbon was a bustling metropolis of 800,000 inhabitants. Today, just 450,000 call Lisbon home. The remaining 400,000 had to move somewhere else simply because they could no longer afford an apartment — of any sort — in Lisbon, Lucio said.
“There are lots of people who work with devotion nine hours a day, 10 hours a day, and unfortunately they do not earn enough to make ends meet,” Lucio said. “… I think it’s not fair to put the blame on the person.”
Lucio terms homelessness as a very specific, challenging experience, that leaves the homeless without three key things to define themselves as human beings; without place, without home, and without family. This lack of defining sense of self leads to other problems, including behavioral and mental issues, and perhaps most strikingly alcohol and substance abuse, Lucio said.
According to Lucio, the average homeless person in Lisbon is a 40 -to-45-year-old man with no more than four to six years of formal schooling and a severe alcohol abuse problem.
He related an oft-heard tale from his research: A police officer finds a homeless person sleeping on the street with “the biggest hangover you can imagine.” The homeless person thanks the officer for saving his life, and claims that he will never touch a drop of alcohol again. Five days later, the police officer finds the homeless man again, passed out drunk in the streets.
Lucio found that, for many homeless people, alcoholism was actually caused by homelessness. They drank to forget they lived on streets, he said.
Portugal offers a philosophical goal that “no one will stay on the street for more than 24 hours” as part of their national strategy on homelessness, but putting that goal into practice is more difficult.
“Of course I want to believe that it’s possible, but you must remember it’s a philosophical goal,” Lucio said.
In his research, Lucio said he came across what seemed like a plan that might actually end homelessness. Rather than throw the homeless into shelters, the Housing First strategy puts the homeless into homes for a specific period of time, offering a real chance to get back on one’s feet away from the concerns of the street.
Fifty roofless people in Lisbon were given homes to see if the Housing First strategy actually works, and the early results seem encouraging, said Lucio, though research is ongoing.
Here in Turlock, city staff is currently hard at work developing a new plan to address homelessness in a world without a city-owned Emergency Cold Weather Homeless Shelter, which was closed due to safety code and liability concerns in 2008. At 6 p.m. on Oct. 22, the Turlock City Council will hold a public hearing at Turlock City Hall to amend their U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Consolidated Plan to no longer include any mention of providing a city-owned or operated homeless shelter.
The new plan builds from the homelessness solution cobbled together for last winter, stating that the city will “support the efforts of the community to provide emergency shelter services during the winter months to serve the needs of homeless individuals within the City of Turlock.”
Last year, the We Care organization stepped in to provide emergency shelter services for as many as 34 single men each night. Turlock Gospel Mission also operated a roving, church-based shelter for women and children, and continues to offer its meal ministry with free meals for homeless individuals each night.
The two organizations worked together to house the homeless last year, and many more service providers joined together as part of a local grassroots homeless action committee. The unity of the local homeless service providers is already a step above Lisbon, where different providers often duplicate services, leave food to rot, and don’t know of each others existence, Lucio said.
Following the closure of the city-owned shelter, the City of Turlock allocated $68,543 to the non-profit Community Housing and Shelter Services to provide counseling services and a motel voucher program, aimed at families with verifiable income, picture ID, and the motivation to move into permanent housing. According to Turlock Community Housing Program Manager Maryn Pitt, 111 seven-day motel vouchers were provided last year, and 600 individuals were served through intake and referrals to services. The Turlock City Council will consider extending the program in October or November.
Lucio’s research points out that such supporting services are crucial to a successful plan to address homelessness. He said he finds that a holistic approach, with strategies tailored to the specific needs of individual homeless populations, is the best way to solve homelessness.
Turlock looks to meet a wide range of housing needs in the coming years, creating more affordable housing through Community Development Block Grant, Neighborhood Stabilization Program, and Redevelopment Agency funding, while continuing to provide down payment assistance and mobile home rental assistance, intended to meet the needs of all spectrums of the community.
To try to help prevent homelessness in the first place, $1.6 million in federal funds over the next three years will go toward in arrears utility and rent payments for at risk Turlockers.
And what about Lucio’s favored solution, that of the Housing First strategy? Here in Turlock, locals are about to give that approach a try as well, thanks to federal Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program stimulus grant funding.
We Care will place seven people into permanent homes for 10 months, offering job training along the way.
“I believe that the Housing First strategy can work anywhere,” Lucio said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.