Even though Long Beach has made major progress in reducing homelessness in the city, there were still about 1,800 people found on the street during a one-day, citywide homeless count in January this year, said Bob Cerince, homeless services officer for the Long Beach Department of Health & Human Services.
Cerince, who was hired for the position a little more than a year ago, spoke to about a dozen people, most of whom lead local community groups, during the North Long Beach Leaders meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 20 at the Carmelitos Community Center.
The total number of homeless individuals in Long Beach, whether they are on the street or in emergency shelters or transitional housing, has declined since the City began the homeless count in 2003 from about 5,000 individuals to about 4,300, he said.
Long Beach provides a system of homeless services through the collaboration of local organizations, from the police department to the health department to about a dozen established nonprofits, and more than $7 million a year in federal funding is spent on addressing homelessness in the city, Cerince said.
Still, the reality is that “the need does exceed the demand,” he said. “We try to do as best we can with the limited resources we have.”
One of the City’s main accomplishments recently, however, is reducing Long Beach’s homeless-veteran population, Cerince said. About three years ago, there were roughly 350 homeless veterans in the city, he said. As of the last count, however, that number has been cut by more than half to just 164, Cerince said.
The drop can be attributed to an increase in federal spending on subsidized Section 8 housing and support services for veterans in recent years, he said. Specifically, the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program combines housing-choice-voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services, provided by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Veterans who are disabled and have physical or mental-health problems, such as those now returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, are quickly linked to housing in the market, Cerince said. Long Beach is just one of three cities in the state that has its own health department and is also lucky to have its own VA hospital, he said. The City has also stepped up efforts to provide education and job opportunities to veterans as well, Cerince said.
He said that, with a recent allocation of another 110 housing vouchers, Long Beach is poised to become “one of the first jurisdictions in the nation” to have a “zero” homeless-veteran population. “We’re very proud of the work that we’re doing in Long Beach to serve our men and women who served us,” Cerince said.
Long Beach is also taking a rather new approach to reducing the number of long-term “chronic” homeless individuals, a category that mainly refers to homeless individuals who suffer from severe mental-health issues and substance-abuse problems, Cerince said.
The federal government previously adopted a regional approach called Continuum of Care, which addresses homelessness by first taking care of individuals through an emergency shelter, after which they can obtain transitional housing for two years and then graduate to permanent housing after demonstrating they are “housing-ready.”
Now, many homeless-services agencies across the nation are using a new approach called “Housing First,” in which homeless individuals are provided with subsidized housing upfront in order to recover and get back on track, he said.
Cerince added, however, that homeless individuals are still required to go through a screening process to be given housing and are required to have some kind of income, such as Social Security or disability, or seek employment if they have the ability to work. The new approach, however, has enabled many homeless people to become productive members of society again.
Cerince described a man who had lived under a bridge along the Los Angeles River for years, but, once he was housed and provided with support services, the man started taking care of the unit he was living in and was hired as the complex’s groundskeeper.
“When they are healthy and in their recovery, they have the self-esteem that they want to contribute,” Cerince said. “Some of these people are so ill they can’t even see what’s up… but most people, when they have their health and mental capacities, want to contribute.”
Long Beach has also begun collaborating with nearby cities to address homelessness through the Gateway Cities Council of Governments. Long Beach has started working with Signal Hill, Lakewood, Hawaiian Gardens and Avalon on Catalina Island to address homelessness, he said.
Cerince pointed out, however, that there are impressions that, since Long Beach is the lead agency in Los Angeles County for providing homeless services, nearby cities often rely on Long Beach, which is not the case. He said other cities should work primarily with Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
In regard to reaching out to the homeless, Cerince discouraged the public from providing food or clothing to homeless individuals in parks such as in Lincoln Park downtown, adding that all homeless people should be directed to the City’s multi-service center or a homeless shelter, where they can obtain long-term services from established organizations and nonprofits. He suggested that volunteers hand out pocket guides provided by the health department that include contact information for organizations and a list of emergency and help hotlines.
“Our position is we have programs and services that are well established at local nonprofits and faith-based organizations that not only provide food and shelter but can link them to services,” Cerince said.
While property owners have a right to banish homeless people from their property, Cerince noted that there are many steps to evicting a homeless person from a public facility. He said police only intervene when a homeless person conducts a criminal act.
North Patrol Division Commander Robert Luman agreed with Cerince, stating that police will respond to a call for assistance regarding homeless or “repeat” panhandling but it doesn’t always result in an arrest.
“We get an awful lot of calls about homelessness, and people want us to go out and take care of the homeless, [saying] that they stink and they’re a problem for the neighborhood,” Luman said. “That’s not illegal. It’s not until there’s criminal activity that it becomes a police problem.”
This year, the winter shelter, provided by the Long Beach Rescue Mission, is open from Dec. 1 through March 14, 2014 at 6845 Atlantic Ave.