Once, not long ago, Britta Daigneault, 45, lived a life that seemed to make sense.
She was married to a man she loved, had two children and was living in a three-bedroom home near Nacimiento Lake.
But in a dizzying collision of events, she lost it all. She was left homeless, living out of her minivan, with everything she owned packed inside. When that vehicle broke, she found herself sleeping in a tent on the streets, under bridges and any place else where she could find some safety.
She lived that way for nearly six years before she found help.
One recent afternoon Daigneault sat on the couch of her new home in San Luis Obispo and shared her story.
She is one of 13 people who have been placed into housing by a new program called 50Now that is taking an innovative approach to helping the 50 most vulnerable, chronically homeless in San Luis Obispo County.
The goal is to first provide housing, then services such as drug, alcohol and mental health treatment — mirroring a national movement that moves away from the traditional approach of treatment first.
It is a difficult and at times delicate undertaking that depends on the dedication of a core team of seven people including a registered nurse, a mental health therapist and a drug and alcohol specialist from Transitions-Mental Health Association. “When people come in off of the streets, they are used to looking at the ground, because they are used to a life where people don’t see them,” said Lori Maggelet, a licensed mental health therapist. “My approach is kindness, compassion and respect. I want them to know that someone sees them.”
Tossed into chaos
Daigneault’s hands nervously sifted through her short blond hair, her legs tucked beneath her on the couch, as she talked about the life she once lived and the years she spent on the street.
The events leading her to homelessness blend together as she weaved her story. The journey that preceded the nearly six years that she spent homeless included reported domestic violence that resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder, medical issues, jobs gained and lost, the despair of losing her children and watching the safety net she thought she had disappear.
“This is a very nice, sophisticated town,” she said. “But when you become homeless here, everyone sees you differently.”
Despite a valiant personal struggle to make things work, the life she once knew quickly fell away.
“I was in a state of panic, anxiety and shock,” she said. “Those feelings did not begin to subside until Transitions came into my life.”
As a woman living on the streets, she quickly learned how vulnerable she was. She said she was raped five times.
“I took a beating, both mentally and physically,” she said. “And I know I am not the only one.”
She avoided the homeless shelter and the Prado Day Center because she said that a lot of the people using the resources there were drug addicts and alcoholics.
She preferred to keep to herself, but even then she couldn’t avoid an underground culture of methamphetamine, something she detested, she said.
“I made enemies quickly because I talked to the police,” she said. “I didn’t like staying at the shelter because I didn’t feel like a nice volunteer at the church overflow could protect me from meth addicts.”
At the time that she connected with Transitions-Mental Health, she was Dumpster diving and living in a field by the airport with a man named Bob, whom she had grown to trust.
“He was my safety zone,” she said. “He never touched me, and he would watch our backs.”
It was Bob who told her about Transitions-Mental Health. Today, they are both enrolled in the program.
Program makes gains
In August, the county Board of Supervisors approved a $1.9 million three-year contract with Transitions-Mental Health Association to launch the 50Now program.
In addition, the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo provided a housing subsidy through a federal rental assistance program to help pay the majority of rent for each of the clients.
In less than four months, 13 people have been given permanent housing — far outpacing the original program goal of getting 17 people in housing within the first nine months of the program.
Another four people are close to being placed in homes.
To choose the 50 participants for the program, the San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services first conducted a survey of 295 chronically homeless people. Case workers made contact with them throughout the county including at gas stations in Morro Bay, under bridges in San Luis Obispo, at parks in Atascadero and the South County and at the Oceano Dunes.
Those individuals were ranked by factors that increase their risk of dying such as age, frequency of emergency room visits and chronic medical conditions.
The statistics of those surveyed are sobering. The average time spent homeless by those surveyed was 5.2 years. Of those, 86 percent reported or showed signs of a mental health condition. Sixty-eight percent have addiction disorders.
Forty percent reported having been attacked at least once while homeless, and nearly the same number of people, 37 percent, had experienced a brain injury or head trauma.
Those surveyed reported a combined 522 visits to the emergency room in the past six months and 125 hospitalizations.
Nearly 40 percent of individuals indentified as the most vulnerable had been to the hospital ER three times or more in the past six months.
The 50 most vulnerable identified through the process are now the focus of the 50Now project. So far, 32 of the 50 people on the list have been contacted by case managers and assessed for services.
The 50Now clients face a host of mental health and medical issues, Maggelet said. Many have suffered from domestic violence and other trauma, often resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, organic brain dysfunctions, depression and low self-esteem. Some also struggle with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The medical issues are just as vast: hepatitis C, seizures, damaged joints, scabies, heart problems, diabetes and other medical issues stemming from years of neglect.
More housing needed
The key to the success of this effort is the Housing Authority’s willingness to contribute 50 housing vouchers to make all of this possible,” said Mark Lamore, who oversees the program. “But we are not finding enough housing right now.”
Lamore will soon launch a campaign to raise awareness among landlords and property managers about the advantages of renting to a client in the 50Now program — including a contingency fund to cover any damages.
Keeping clients in housing is also a challenge. Many have grown reluctant to trust a societal system they feel at one time failed them.
For Daigneault it took time to adjust. She’d spend a couple of nights at home and then return to the familiarity of the streets. Eventually, living in a four-bedroom home shared with three other women in the program became her safe space.
Not all of the clients will succeed in staying in permanent housing. A failure rate of about 10 percent is anticipated, but a focused effort is being made by the team to help all of them. “All of these people are survivors,” Lamore said.
Daigneault said the support system is helping her to address her mental and medical issues and look toward the future.
She can live in the home for as long as she needs.
“The thought of losing this … to me that would be a death sentence,” she said. “I am the most grateful to finally be safe, but the word grateful is really an understatement.”