SLO County homeless program is on track to house the 50 most vulnerable

50NOW housing for homeless

Formerly homeless clients talk about the life-changing program that provided housing.
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Formerly homeless clients talk about the life-changing program that provided housing.

Gail Magee has had a roof over her head for nearly 10 months, but she is still marveling at the seemingly minor conveniences that come with having her own home.

“Having a sink you can wash dishes in, instead of a tub of freezing cold water,” she said while sitting on a floral-print couch with her husband, Jake Magee, in their Atascadero apartment. “Just going to the bathroom or taking a shower. Heat and air conditioning. I’m living high on the hog.”

Until Dec. 28, 2014, the Magees had a much less comfortable place to call home: a tent in a field across from Marigold Shopping Center in San Luis Obispo. They lived in that area together since they met in September 2012, marrying the following May.

Gail Magee, 51, had been homeless since about 2010; her husband, who moved to San Luis Obispo County from Austin, Texas, about a decade ago, had been homeless for about 22 years. His chronic homelessness, coupled with some health issues she was suffering, made them strong candidates for the 50Now program, an effort to house San Luis Obispo County’s 50 most vulnerable residents.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the 50Now program and (program manager) Mark Lamore saved our lives.

Jake Magee, Atascadero resident, formerly homeless in San Luis Obispo

The 50Now program is a collaboration between the county’s social services department, Transitions-Mental Health Association, the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo and Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo Inc. The goal is to first provide housing, then surround the clients with services such as drug, alcohol and mental health treatment. The team doesn’t have a vocational specialist, but clients can seek assistance through Transitions’ Supported Employment Program.

“After getting people in housing, the key and the glue that holds it all together is the case management,” said Mark Lamore, team leader with Transitions’ Homeless Services Program. Case managers meet weekly with the clients to ensure any problems — from substance abuse to managing a budget to roommate issues — are addressed.

Ahead of schedule

In August 2014, the county Board of Supervisors approved a $1.9 million three-year contract with Transitions to launch the program. The Housing Authority also provided a housing subsidy through a federal rental assistance program to help pay the majority of rent for each of the clients (the clients pay 30 percent of their income).

“It has been an absolutely successful experiment for us and my goal will be to continue the program,” said Lee Collins, the county’s social services director. “I could make a compelling case to continue the program and expand if possible. The only thing that holds the program back is the availability of housing.”

To choose the 50 participants for the program, the county department of social services conducted two separate surveys of nearly 500 chronically homeless people throughout the county. Those individuals were ranked by factors that increase their risk of dying, such as age, frequency of emergency room visits and chronic medical conditions.

“We knew coming in that the clients referred to this list are dealing with mental health, physical health and substance abuse issues,” Lamore said. “Not every client has all those problems, but the majority do or are in some form of recovery.”

The program is founded on a concept being tested across the country, that housing the most vulnerable clients lessens their number of visits to the emergency room, county jail, or the county psychiatric health facility. The early trends are promising.

In the year before being housed, seven clients collectively had been booked 20 times into County Jail, spending a total of 201 days there. None of them had been booked into jail as of

April 1, the latest data available.

In the year before the program started, 13 individuals had a total of 25 emergency room visits. That dropped to seven visits between November 2014 and July 1, 2015.

The information is only available for individuals who signed a release to allow county officials to seek specific information from various agencies, said Laurel Weir, homeless services coordinator at social services.

The program “is geared toward the most chronically homeless people who may have co-occurring mental illness and addiction disorders, and that’s something we can make a difference in, in terms of their impacting public services,” Weir said.

“Housing is treatment,” she added. “You have to have the other treatment services that go along with that, but housing is part of their treatment and it provides the stability and the safety that they need in order to address the challenges that they face.”

The program started last October with a goal of housing 17 people within the first nine months, 34 people within 15 months and 50 within 21 months.

42Number of people currently housed through the 50Now program, including 38 people on the 50Now list and four children and spouses

At the one-year mark, 44 individuals had been placed into housing, Lamore said. But six of those individuals left the program: three reconnected with their families and three others left the program voluntarily. In all, 42 people have been housed, including 38 people on the 50Now list and a few children and spouses.

“Some have been homeless over 10 years, and it’s an adjustment to take care of a home,” Lamore said.

He’s hoping that all 50 individuals (and their spouses or children) are housed by the end of the year.

But more housing is needed.

Satisfied landlords

Housing has been easier to find in the North County, more difficult in the South County and tough in San Luis Obispo “because we have the Cal Poly effect here,” Lamore said.

Paso Robles property owner Dirk Dole has six of the 12 units in his apartment complex in the 50Now program.

“We tried one and it went well and then we had a vacancy and so we tried two and then had another vacancy,” Dole said. “We’ve slowly been rolling more his way (to Lamore) as units come open.”

Dole said his experiences with the program have been positive — and even improved his property in some ways.

“They put in a pathway for (one client) to get to the laundry room with a wheelchair,” Dole said. “Normally a renter has not notified us when there’s a problem. They’ll just kind of live with it. But with Transitions being more onsite, they hear about little issues ... and most of the time they take care of them.”

Grover Beach property owner David Buck-Moyer said he appreciated the opportunity to do something good by letting Transitions rent his home to three formerly homeless men through the program.

He also listed several side benefits: He never has to search for tenants, doesn’t have to pay a property management firm and knows that someone is checking on the tenants regularly.

“I can’t imagine any downside for a homeowner,” Buck-Moyer said. “We were trying to do something good with our property, and it turns out to be easier on us.”

‘It’s not just a house’

William Caridi, 61, is one of the three men living in Buck-Moyer’s home. An artist, some of Caridi’s work hangs in the house, ranging from a painting of a Minnesota farmhouse to Sponge Bob — “the best cartoon in the world,” he said.

Caridi had been homeless for about two years before he found housing through the program. He moved in April 4.

“It’s not just a house,” he said. “I’ve been able to make this into a home, a place you can feel comfortable being in.”

The Magees’ Atascadero apartment has a similar secure feeling. Some of Gail Magee’s family photos hang on the wall, and Jake Magee was able to recover from storage a stack of journals with songs and writings — he would like to become an accomplished songwriter and singer, and play some music in the area.

“I want to move on beyond the 50Now program and let someone else have a spot,” Jake Magee said.

I’ve been able to make this into a home, a place you can feel comfortable being in.

William Caridi, formerly homeless and now living in Grover Beach

Gail Magee, who grew up in the county, had worked as a pharmacy technician and a dental assistant, but three arrests for driving under the influence made it tough to find work. Eventually, she couldn’t pay her rent and was evicted.

After 30 days at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, she became homeless around 2010 and ended up sleeping in a field across from the Marigold Shopping Center with an old blue tarp and a tattered knit blanket that she found — the latter she kept and washed and still cherishes.

It was there that she met Jake, 66, who was born in Florida but lived and hitchhiked across the country. His mother, who lived with depression, died when he was 3 years old, and his father committed suicide when he was 8. He has also sought help for depression.

Jake Magee said he worked in factories in Atlanta and North Carolina years ago. During periods of unemployment, he said he tried to find work “but when you’re homeless it’s difficult to get hired.”

“It is not the fault of law enforcement, but the reality is technically you are a criminal if you are homeless,” he said. “Just by being alive and having no home, you are breaking the law.”

He described having housing after years of being homeless as being released from prison after a long sentence, or being declared cancer-free: “It’s that dramatic.”

“You can’t have a life,” he said. “It’s just survival.”

Now, his wife added: “I get to have a comfortable feeling; a measure of safety and security. I don’t have the daily worries you have when you’re homeless.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO

How to get involved

Property owners interested in learning more about the 50Now program can call 805-540-6515.