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Saturday, Mar 16 2013 08:00 PM

Home First program starts changing lives of homeless

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    The Home First program finds the neediest homeless in Bakersfield, those who will die if left on the street, and gives them their own homes. David Williamson, 57, is one individual who has been housed for the past six months. "During the winter I would find abandoned houses and stay there, so that I could stay out of the cold," he said.

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BY LAURA LIERA Californian staff writer lliera@bakersfield.com

David Williamson's life has changed from living between two fences by train tracks with nothing but some clothes and little food to now being able to cook and sleep on a bed in his own apartment in Bakersfield.

Williamson, 57, is one of the first 12 homeless people chosen by the Kern Homeless Collaborative to be given his own apartment and receive support services through Home First 12. It's the local name for a nationwide project called 100,000 Homes Campaign, which aims to house the most vulnerable street homeless in America by mid-2014.

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Home First 12 is now called Home First 13, both based on the calendar year and the number of people the Kern Homeless Collaborative aims to house through the program.

But there could be even more. The Housing Authority of the County of Kern has provided the program with 36 extra housing vouchers per year to be used toward the program's efforts.

Louis Medina, homelessness project manager at United Way of Kern County, believes the results of this first effort were positive, considering that the individuals who were selected have lived on the streets for many years.

"You're not targeting people that are already using services such as shelters; you are really going after the hard-core ones that without this service can possibly die on the street," he said.

And thoughts of death ran through Williamson's mind every single night when he went to sleep.

"You never know when you're out in the streets if you're ever going to wake up the next morning or not," Williamson said.

He became homeless at age 50, he said, because he was left without a job after new management took over the hotel he used to manage.

Williamson wasn't able to find a job and eventually lived and slept between two fences with bamboo as his protection.

"I had my place stumped out there, where I could crawl in and nobody would see me," he said. "The fences were on both sides so if someone tried to get in, they would have to wake me up, but it was the only place I felt kind of safe."

But his life took a 180-degree turn one morning at Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

Williamson was by the learning center to get a warm lunch at 11 a.m. when a volunteer from the collaborative approached him with a survey.

"I did the interview and they were giving away a $5 McDonald card, so I knew it was worth a meal," Williamson said. "I got a Big Mac and it was so good because it had been a while since I had had one of those."

The survey was the Vulnerability Index. About 80 volunteers interviewed 300 homeless people across the city for three consecutive days. The survey gave a score of vulnerability points for every kind of issue that was going on in a person's life.

For example, older people and those with chronic health conditions were given more points. The points were put into a database that automatically ranked everyone surveyed, according to Medina.

Case managers from the Bakersfield Homeless Center were then given the task of finding the 12 most vulnerable homeless people to share the news that they had qualified for the program.

Araceli Bejar, 26, family case manager for the homeless center, was assigned to work with Williamson and found him at Martin Luther King Jr. Park after a few days of searching.

"I was sitting in the van with my supervisor and I spotted him and I was like 'there he is, there he is,'" she said, smiling. "He finally turned around and came toward the van and we told him he had been selected for the program."

At first, Williamson was in disbelief. But he was very excited about the news.

"I was ecstatic when they told me because I never knew I had that kind of luck for anything," he said.

Williamson was housed within a month after all the paperwork had been submitted and he signed his new apartment lease. He's in the process of applying for SSI benefits to help with expenses.

All apartments are furnished with a bed, couch, TV or radio, and kitchen appliances, such as pots, pans, plates and utensils, according to Bejar.

Williamson has been able to wake up and prepare his own breakfast and dinner in his new apartment and feels lucky to have been given the opportunity.

"If it wasn't for this program I wouldn't know which way to go or what to do," he said. "I might have already been dead out there."

Williamson hopes to find a job with the help of Bejar and be able to take care of himself.

"I want to not have to worry about going back to the streets, sleeping by the tracks because it's a hectic life that tears a person down," he said.

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